[repost] “why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

NB: This essay is reposted from my old blog. The original post was written when Una was almost 1. Now she’s 5, and I have another baby daughter. My opinions have not budged; and the American left’s internal crisis over “identity politics” would appear to lent them fresh relevance.

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“When A Popular List Of 100 ‘Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever'”

Read the article and the comments. I’ll wait.

In place of what I actually want to write next, just imagine a big guy with a red face yelling a lot.

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Let me explain myself in a more measured way.

I have this daughter. She’s real cute. I don’t hang out with her as much as I’d like, but enough that I can’t really tell whether she can pass for white. I think maybe she can’t — though she’s changing every day, so in the long term, who knows? But even if you don’t know her mama, she does, and she’ll figure the genetics out, like you do.

It’s going to be some time before she can read at all, and some more before she can read with any sophistication. So there’ll be a period in there where she doesn’t have any idea whether “race/skin color [is] important to the context of the stories being told,” or whether a story is “ABOUT being black or Indian or Asian-American and how tough it is.” But she will have some idea whether there’s anyone who looks like her, or like her mama, in the book. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t in the next book, and there isn’t in the book after that or the book after that, she’s going to notice.

Beyond that? I’ve probably spoken too much for her already. But I’m guessing she’s going to wonder why. And I’m guessing she’s going to wonder if there might not be something weird, or off, or not quite right, about being the way she is, since no one seems to want to write about those sorts of people.

I’m white. I’m not going to pretend I know how that feels. Maybe it’s not that bad. But I’m also not going to pretend that “I’m so special that no one will write about me!” is a likely outcome.

The brain is a statistical engine. Our conscious minds are shit at probability, but unconsciously, we soak it up. We automatically notice what’s amiss.

The brain is a social engine. What’s talked about — what’s in other people’s brains — is attractive and valuable. What’s ignored and hidden is shameful and worthless.

Is this difficult? Have I said anything anybody doesn’t know?

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And, by the way, what is with all this speculation that maybe a huge chunk of kid’s books contain racially ambiguous protagonists? Did you ever notice that characters have a weird way of having names? My daughter, for example, one of my own movie’s main characters. Shin-Yi and I agreed (and here, by the way, I refer not to Shin-Yi O’Shaughnessy of Cork County, Ireland, nor to Shin-Yi Kvaratskhelia of the Republic of Georgia, but to my wife, Shin-Yi Lin, whose ancestry, it may shock you to learn, is mostly Han Chinese) way before she was born that, whatever her name was, it’d be part Chinese and part Western. And we loved Una for a first name, so her last name is Lin. So, go ahead, speak to me about how Hermione Hussein Granger was really Kenyan all along. (2016 update: Obviously I got this one wrong; quite pleased to have been made a fool of.)

While we’re in Q&A time, I’d also like to understand how “Making such a big deal out of things like this keeps racism alive and well.” I’d like that explained to me in meticulous detail. Is the KKK marching in the streets outside the publishers’ offices in New York, burning crosses for greater racial diversity in YA literature? I did not receive that telegram. Perhaps there was a paper jam in my fax machine.

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I couldn’t give a shit about basketball, truly I couldn’t, but I gave a shit about Jeremy Lin. (No relation.)

Look, I don’t get to pick who my daughter is. She gets more of a say, but she, too, is not without constraints. When I hear people being too cool for school about Jeremy Lin my fucking brain-pan overheats, because it matters if my daughter has a pro athlete for a role model. Not in my ideal world, maybe not in the world that will be, but in the world of weird wobbly possibility that obtains when your little girl is 11 months old and might, just might, find herself able and hungry to do literally any given thing at all, IT MATTERS.

I would have blown off Linsanity a year ago as well. Being a dad has made me hella more political, in the “identity politics” sense. I have probably jumped at shadows once or twice. I’m not sorry. Protip: Do not get me started on sexism.

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I am actually not fussed at NPR’s response, by the way. I think the article was badly titled, the solution of flagging the popularity-contest nature of the thing with a better title is easy and obvious, and the matter can more or less rest there. No need for NPR to distort reality, as long as they call it what it is. The top sf & fantasy list was called “Your Picks.” I wasn’t happy that NPR’s audience couldn’t bring themselves to upvote a single author of color, or that NPR was too oblivious to notice that fact, but that’s what it is. NPR listeners’ picks, which elevated a piece of STAR WARS companion merch over Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, but there you go.

It’s the self-satisfied complacency of the commentariat that’s nasty. Race is done, am I right? If you didn’t hear about it before it was cool, then it’s lamestream. (That’s right, you fuckers, I just called every one of you a hipster Sarah Palin.)

I don’t like the concept of “derailing.” I don’t like sniping over “privilege.” But I am starting to get where all this anger is coming from.

jack and the apples

Art first; context later.

Jack was Adam John First the Third,
As hale a lad as you’ve ever heard
Run over the brook on a rotting log
With an apple in his pocket and a loose-skinned dog;

And V was Valentine Eve Vereen,
As sharp a lady as you’ve ever seen
Sew pockets in the chimney of her old top hat
For pencils and books and apples for her cat.

Now Jack and V and Dog and Cat
Had something in common (did you guess at that?) —
For Cat and Dog and V and Jack
Were joined in their love of a red sweet snack.
Yes, Dog and Cat and Jack and V
Loved apples in every variety…

I wrote a story once. It was about stories, and how they can be dangerous, and about a father who is losing his son; and in it I name-checked a fictitious children’s book called JACK AND THE APPLES. The name-check itself is later, but the description comes first:

Kelly and Kieran, Madonna and child, that voice like coffee with cream poured into those words like tiny perfect cups. She always hated her writing, but for once she could forget it was hers, just giving him that voice, those words, that slight simple story built up from symbols so old and commonplace you wouldn’t think anyone could do anything with them any more. Apples, trees, a dog, a girl, a boy. But balanced, like calligraphy, flowing in this stately dance out of a spiral notebook that looked like an elephant’s bung-wipe. Light mother and dark boy, a book, a couch, a lap, the sun before naptime. All mine. Can you imagine that?

… I won’t quote the rest — I’m too proud of that story, even if no one would buy it, you can read it if you like what you saw.

The point is, more or less as soon as the story was done, I started thinking about JACK AND THE APPLES. Now, I’ve written a dissertation in neuroscience; I’ve written dozens of scientific articles and short stories; I’ve written a couple novels in the 50-60K range and a couple in the 160-170K range. Footprint-wise, in comparison, a kid’s book is like… well, a kid’s foot. But I tried a few times and it would never come out. I was trying to write it more or less like a comic, with a descriptive mise-en-scene for the artist and the words, and I just couldn’t get anything that would go where I wanted it to go (or even somewhere else interesting).

But tonight, after a weekend of furious editing on THE EIGHTH KING and somewhat less than furious recovery from a really awful cold, I was lying in bed with Rowan and the words just started coming.

I’m not saying the doggerel above will ever measure up to the impossible bar I set for this book in “Keynote Speech…” But I’m very interested that this is starting to take something approximating shape.

back cover copy

In case the featured image isn’t readable, here’s the text:

In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more. Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.

Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan. But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard and a paradox that holds the key to her fate:

How do you find a Finder?

(Spoilers for VOICE in what follows.)

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Since pretty much the first talk I gave in grad school, I’ve known I don’t have the knack for cutting to the chase.

This is not altogether a bad thing, especially as someone who makes his living analyzing data. Getting hung up on technicalities and weird patterns is a good way to spot errors, which in turn is a good way to stay humble about your work — and realistic about the work of others, who may exaggerate their findings. (You’d never do that, of course.)

But data analysts almost always need, at some point, to become data communicators, and that’s where this tendency can make you fall down. You can’t communicate every possible confound and caveat. Probably you can’t even communicate every substantive point. You need to concentrate on the absolute most important features of the analysis, explain them in the simplest language possible… then leave it alone for a few hours, come back, and sand it down even further. Then do it again. Then run it by someone who doesn’t know the problem too well, take their feedback, and do it again… and then maybe it will penetrate the 800 other things on the CEO’s mind and take root to do some good.

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This is not a post about data, exactly, but it is a post about compression. Traditionally published authors need to do it to sell to agents and editors; indie authors need to do it to sell to customers. As someone who’s attempted both, I’ve compressed various books in a variety of forms: Query letters, Twitter pitches, product descriptions.

And I’m not any better at it as an author than I am as a data scientist.

As an author, I suffer from delusions. I think my books are un-summarizable; I am proud that they are un-summarizable, that nuance and novelty and complexity are (in my mind) in fact a key feature of my writing. And, you know, maybe I’m right! At any rate, I try to write stories I’d like to read, and nuance and novelty and complexity are attributes I value and seek out in literature. But even books I like for these exact reasons, and try to emulate–say, the Book of the New Sun–have product descriptions, and most of them are famous enough that the product descriptions can safely be presumed to be doing some useful work. If a publisher can boil Gene Wolfe down to a gripping little ingot of back cover copy, I should be able to do the same for my own work.

Which is what brings us to VOICE.

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Carla Speed McNeil is a writer and artist of comics, but her writing has pretty well everything I could think to strive for in my own: Humor, heart, intelligence, care, world-building so solid you forget the book is nothing but black lines on white paper. (That’s leaving aside the visual storytelling, which is also really fucking good, but I digress.) Although she’s writing science fiction, and science fiction comics at that, her stories are intensely focused on emotions and relationships. VOICE is no exception. It is a coming-of-age story in some sense, but the coming-of-age ritual isn’t necessarily interesting in and of itself — it’s deliberately vapid, actually, its only usefulness in the purposes it serves…

And maybe this is where we start turning to the back cover copy.

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“In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more.” Function: Set the scene. It’s perhaps worth noting that most of this is strictly irrelevant to the story: Rachel is competing for admission into Llaverac; there’s nothing about the dome, almost nothing about other clans. In meaningful ways, not much about this story would change if the Llaverac were a weird cult instead of a clan with broad recognition. But we’re looking to interest people who might not understand the setting, so we zoom out a bit.

“Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.” Function: Delineate the stakes.

But this gets interesting, because it overstates the material consequences of Rachel’s bid. About the only thing that’s explicitly at stake is her sisters’ ability to go to school — which, as explicitly stated in the book, neither seems to want or need to do. Their mother was a member of Llaverac and life was still hard, and when (spoilers) Rachel is admitted to the clan at the end, she does win a house, but she can’t pay the servants. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the series, there are characters who seem to do all right who aren’t in clans.

Being admitted to Llaverac is a lot more about Rachel’s personality and desires than it is about her *needing* to get into Llaverac. But that’s hard to convey in a small space, because it’s hard to convey Rachel in a small space — and you’d run a strong risk of making her sound kind of spoiled and bitchy if you tried.

“Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan.” The “grueling contest” is a beauty contest. Rachel has “fought her way through” in a sense — I’ve heard how hard it is to be a model, and I don’t doubt it — but this phrasing conjures up a more… shall we say, classical set of trials?

Presumably the bit about Rachel straddling worlds and being mixed-clan by ancestry is to accentuate how difficult the contest is likely to be? I can’t imagine why else you’d use up this many words on those biographical facts. (Which are interesting and important — but, recall, the problem we’re trying to solve here is how to get a reader to open the book.) Interestingly, prejudice doesn’t appear to have stood in Rachel’s way all that much at any point.

“But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard…” It’s probably worth noting that this all happens in Chapter 1. No deep analysis of all the crazy plot that occurs in the dark underbelly of Anvard, and there’s a lot of it… we just point Rachel in the right general direction, remove the safety, and leave the rest for the would-be reader.

“… and a paradox that holds the key to her fate: How do you find a Finder?

I suppose “holds the key to her fate” is one of those phrases that’s calibrated to maximize both portent and plausible deniability? Rachel is looking for a Finder, but she doesn’t find him. She finds help, but it isn’t really the right kind of help — at least, it isn’t her clan ring, which is what she’s looking for, the loss of which is what’s theoretically disqualifying her from clan membership.

It’s Rachel’s own wits and guts that ultimately win her acceptance into the clan. To me, that’s much more the “key to her fate,” even if looking for a Finder had something to do with bringing her to it.

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Is there anything we can learn from all this? 1300+ words in, there’d better be.

I’m proceeding on the assumption that this is a good product description. This doesn’t seem like a crazy assumption: The thing is brief, it’s intriguing; it has the principal, the problem, the setup, the stakes.

What it isn’t is accurate. In my view. In, shall we say, incomplete seriousness, I’ll go so far as to suggest that it’s intentionally deceptive*: It suggests that Rachel has “fought” for acceptance, that she needs a Finder to close the deal, that her family will be fucked if she fails. Whereas Rachel’s acceptance into the clan is contingent mostly on the results of a beauty contest, that she strictly fails at that contest and gets what she wants by an inspired bit of blackmail, and that her success is mostly important to Rachel herself, not her family, which by its own assessment is doing fine.

It would be a mistake to suggest that the hero’s journey is absent from the pages of VOICE; Rachel does literally venture into and return from the dark underbelly of Anvard, having learned things and retrieved things and walked unscathed away from encounters with monsters. But the cover copy doubles down on the Campbell notes, scanting the internal dimensions of the stakes, the quest, and the victory. And it’s not so hard to understand that shift in emphasis. VOICE in my “accurate” summary is the story of a vain girl out for herself; VOICE in the words of its cover is a plucky quest story about a hero whose family is in danger. VOICE in its fullness is a little bit of both of these things and a lot of something else… but, strapped for space, you can see the appeal of the plucky quest story.

There’s obviously a political dimension to that assessment, and I have neither fuel nor spark to interrogate it deeply, beyond acknowledging that, yeah, we want to be careful about saying that stories of women out to improve their own circumstances are intrinsically unappealing. But, to wax obvious: I think we are drawn to altruism, to real journeys to tangible dark places, to MacGuffins. They are fluent; we understand them easily, and so we like them.

I suppose there’s also an audience dimension. FINDER is a science fiction comic, two genres not known for their friendliness to the general reader, or to women. The particular distortions of this product description might have as much to do with making the pitch sound like science fiction, or at least congenial to science fiction readers, as anything else.

But if we can extract some general principles of product description design, maybe they’re these:

  1. Lay out the basics swiftly and clearly: Principal(s), setup, stakes, problems.
  2. Externalize. Stakes, journeys, conflicts: Make them exterior and therefore tangible.
  3. Emphasize the early part of the story, the setup for the start of the action. Don’t go far into the plot.
  4. You’re not trying to capture the spirit of your story; you’re trying to raise questions.

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And that’s probably all the blood that’s likely to come from this stone. Thanks for hanging on, and do seriously consider picking up a copy of VOICE. Or just go pick up the first volume of the FINDER library and start at the beginning.

some nuts and bolts of an author website

It’s pretty common for people to talk about their writing process, but you don’t often hear how people build their websites. Maybe because a lot of the people with the big megaphones don’t do it themselves? (This isn’t a knock on people with big megaphones; if I had the cash to outsource, I would.) Anyway, there have been some changes here in the past couple of days, and I thought some of the technical stuff might be of general interest. More importantly, I want to write down what I did so I can reference it later.

NB: I’m still a pathetic n00b at WordPress, but I am just comfortable enough with HTML, CSS, and PHP to make minor modifications (heavily commented so I know where they are). All alterations are perpetrated on a child theme.

Appearance

As I write, the theme you’re looking at is the Quality theme. It’s more or less the look I wanted, but I made a few tweaks to the code in the Editor (Appearance -> Editor on your dashboard). The big change was to page.php, removing the title, featured image, date, and comments from my pages so they’d look less like blog posts. (Looking at it, I think I’m going to remove the title on the blog page as well, if I remember.)

I also made some changes to style.css, changing from the theme’s default salmon to a navy blue. This exposed a couple of interesting facts about Quality and WordPress. First, I discovered that Quality has a bunch of CSS in files that aren’t exposed to the Editor because they’re in a css subdirectory within the theme; the source code links to them, but I can’t edit them in the WordPress interface. So I spent a bit of fun time re-familiarizing myself with Site5’s file manager — which actually has a code editor with pretty decent syntax highlighting.

But this all didn’t seem to have any obvious effect on the appearance of the salmon text. So my second discovery was browser caching and WordPress. I don’t pretend to understand the issue deeply, but I do pretend that when I cleared the browser cache, the changes showed up very nicely.

Enabling file downloads

One of the things I’ve been meaning to do for donkeys’ years is set up a list bribe — specifically, a free download of The Dandelion Knight for anyone who joins the list. Initially, I wanted to have a swanky setup like Amanda Abella’s, where you get the download directly from the browser as soon as you enter your email, but I couldn’t find a good free solution for that; there are free plugins for MailChimp signups, and free plugins for requiring an email before a download, but I couldn’t find any to require a MailChimp signup before a download. So I settled on installing Download Monitor and including download links to the list bribe in the final welcome email, which users receive when they’ve finished signing up for the list. (This last is done completely within MailChimp, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Once I’d installed Download Monitor, I ran into a problem with WordPress security settings: EPUB and MOBI files (i.e., e-reader files) can’t be uploaded due to a perceived security risk. It was pretty easy to figure out how to fix this, although it did involve editing wp-config.php, which again had to be done through my host’s file manager rather than the WordPress editor.

For a brief time, I did flirt with the idea of bypassing the WordPress media library altogether and just uploading the book files directly through Site5’s file manager. I decided to go the slightly more fiddly route because it seemed worth it to have Download Manager’s analytics available — especially because the links to the free copy of TDK aren’t authenticated at all, except by secrecy. I don’t flatter myself that it’s hugely likely someone will join my list and then post the links publicly… but if it happens, and I start getting a shit-ton of downloads without corresponding list signups, I’ll at least have a prayer of seeing it in my WordPress dashboard.

Ubiquitous mailing list signup

I wanted to at least experiment with having a list signup available elsewhere on the site. MailChimp Top Bar seemed as good an option as any. By default it’s sticky and on the top; I kept it sticky, but moved it to the bottom, which hopefully strikes a good balance between availability/noticeability and unobtrusiveness/ignorability.

Plugin manifest and summary of modifications

Here’s my full list of currently activated plugins:

  • Akismet
  • Download Monitor
  • Google Analytics Dashboard for WP
  • Jetpack by WordPress.com
  • MailChimp for WordPress
  • MailChimp for WordPress – Top Bar
  • WP to Twitter

Anything non-default about the plugins was changed via Settings, not by modifying the code directly.

As I’ve said before, I’m running the Quality theme. I’ve made text-color modifications to style.css and css/default.css, some minor layout modifications to page.php, and file upload security modifications to wp-config.php in the root directory.

I think that’s it! I don’t mean to suggest that these hacks make my site exceptional — quite the opposite, they make it feel more slapdash and likely to break. But it’s fun to figure things out, and it’s useful to learn how to do things outside the WordPress interface when necessary.

#murderyourdarlings

From (or rather, not from) the WIP:

And what I’m here to tell you is, I now represent interests who desperately need someone to do what you do. So what I want to know is, how good are you at what you do?”

“Depends what I do. Sucking dick? Below average. Insufficiently attentive to partner’s needs. Video games? Adequate. Reliably ganks n00bs, surprisingly effective Zerg rush. Karaoke? Green Lantern Corps, motherfucker.”

“At salting, dickface.”

“Almost as good as I am at karaoke.”

Norm Flemington smiled. “Pray you’re better.”

“You’ve never heard me reinvent ‘November Rain.’”

Whether or not this really deserves to be a “darling,” it is to me. Not only because I like the exchange, but because I had plans for “November Rain.” The interlocutors here are former lovers, so the lyrics fit. The idea was, Norm (who asks “how good are you?”) has actually heard Kris sing “November Rain” in karaoke, Kris was just too drunk to remember. Norm was going to end up having a snatch of it as a ringtone, hinting at a torch he still carries. The story is about the possibility of an alien invasion, so the repetition of “You’re not the only one” in the song is suitably ominous.

But I’m targeting the thing for TERRAFORM — 2000 words, and I’m already 700+ over. The initial question just doesn’t make sense; they’re lovers, they’re industrial opponents, Norm already knows the answer. And as much as I like the snappy little list starting with “Depends what I do,” it doesn’t sound like human dialogue.

So. Murdered, for now. But “darlings” have a way of rising from the dead…

A nobody’s primer on publishing

A friend just finished a draft of a novel (STAR WARS fanfic, for context) (EDITED: Actually original fiction; reading comprehension error) and wanted advice on publishing. I spammed the relevant Facebook thread with this beast, then realized that I might have some followers who might enjoy a highly condensed, ultra-basic take on publishing from someone who hasn’t achieved more than beer-money-level success at it.

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If it’s fanfic, you’ll probably have to give it the ol’ E. L. James treatment if you want to sell it–not billionaires and light bondage (necessarily) but filing off the serial numbers. I’m given to understand that the people responsible for publishing STAR WARS novels tend to know what they want written; they’re not that interested in spec work. Then again, it’s not like I’ve ever submitted a STAR WARS manuscript and actually heard from an editor that they’re not interested in spec work… so do some research if this is the way you want to go.

If you’re interested in traditionally publishing it, the first piece of work is obviously revision. Then you can send it to agents and/or publishers; most people recommend agents, but there are at least a couple of science fiction publishers that will consider unagented manuscripts (Tor and Daw, anyway; possibly others?). The SFWA should have a list of reputable novel publishers; Query Shark has good advice on query letters; Preditors & Editors has a very comprehensive list of agents, and I think Robert J. Sawyer has a list of agents who represent a lot of science fiction, although his list may be out of date (I last looked at it in 2011 and I think it was a little old then) (edit: it appears to have been updated in 2013).

If you want to self-publish it, I highly, highly recommend listening to the Self-Publishing Podcast and the Creative Penn podcast. SPP is entertaining enough that you can pound through the archive in a few months of listening, and it’s worth it; the hosts have made huge progress since they started recording, and looking at their career trajectories (and at the changes in the landscape) is really instructive. The Creative Penn is less entertaining, but Joanna Penn is a bit smarter about things like rights, derivative works, &c, and her guests are pretty different.

The over-under on self-publishing versus traditional is roughly: Traditional publishers will do a lot for you, but it’s hard to get their attention and (reputedly) hard to get them to do much marketing for you, so you’re responsible for getting your books sold, and you need to sell a lot of them because you’re only making 15%. If you self-publish, you’re responsible for creating or contracting everything–the ebook, editing, cover, product description, marketing, everything–but Amazon (and the other platforms: B&N, Apple, Kobo, Google, &c) will pay you 70% of each sale, so you can do well on a lot fewer sales. Charlie Stross has an essay called “Why I don’t self-publish,” and he’s also published an essay by Linda Nagata called “Why I do self-publish”; the compare/contrast may be interesting. Stross also has a series of essays on the publishing industry (I think permalinked on the sidebar of his blog) that are definitely worth the read.

Not that I’ve been thinking about this for a while or anything. Happy to follow up on anything & everything. (That goes for you too, you legion of loyal readers, you.)

The War of Songs

I had a process post lined up for this spot, but it occurred to me that it might help—in the interests of science—to know what these books are actually meant to be about. I was thinking that would be clear from the beats and synopses, but I’m actually not sure that’s the case; those are outgrowths of things that have been composting in my head for years, and references that are clear to me might not be clear to you. In case this hasn’t made it absolutely clear, this post contains serious spoilers, particularly for The Claim. (Though, of course, all spoilers are provisional—the book isn’t finished yet!)

The first three books in this series, anyway, follow an ex-soldier named Esker Sepherene, who hails from a small desert village called Metu in the territory of Heru, which will soon receive province status. We first see him, in The Claim, returning from a long campaign; he was recruited as a teenager along with the other boys his age, all but one of whom have survived to return. The Claim follows him in two parallel stories: Right after his return, and some unspecified amount of time later, where he and his friends have joined a group of runeslingers to go prospecting in the ruined desert city of Jagaag. The driving question early in The Claim is: What brought Esker from the return to his village, which seemed peaceful and happy, to risk his life as a prospector?

The answer emerges gradually, though it only raises more questions. Esker’s wife, Hasina, can’t speak. Esker is looking for a piece of technology to help her. Hasina can’t speak because no women in Heru can speak: They are mutilated at birth, their tongues cut out. (As with all social generalities, there are exceptions to “no women in Heru can speak”: a religious minority called the Chanters does not Hush their women, nor do the Rooks, who are native to Jaidar and live in and around the dead cities.) The Hush prevents women from using magic; they are used as batteries by Heru’s climate sorcerers, who calibrate the desert climate to grow a plant that produces a magical substance called black silver. This is all part of normal life in Heru and the other Hushed territories of Jaidar, so it’s going to emerge as background over the course of the books. Esker has, of course, had some particular experiences that sensitize him to the horror and wrongness of forced female silence, and those will come out over the course of The Claim and The Candidate.

Back in the ruins of Jagaag, Esker and his group find that their claim has been jumped by the Tungsten Kid, an outlaw feared across all the deserts of Jaidar. They ultimately have to strike a deal with the city’s Rook indigenes to take it back. With their help, Esker prevails, and succeeds in finding the technology he’s looking for. And now the stage is set for a major social upheaval, as we learn that Esker doesn’t just intend to give the tech to his wife—he intends to fabricate it and distribute it across Jaidar, so anyone who’s silent and wants a voice can have one. The Candidate will deal with Esker’s return to Metu and Hasina, and how the village is dealing with the social questions that arise as Heru territory prepares to become a province of Jaidar—in particular, the question of whether the Hush will continue to be legal there, or whether it will be outlawed as it is in the Voiced provinces to the east.

There are a lot of questions here, and I’m not going to answer them all, in part because the process of outlining has been the process of answering. The above is more or less the level of detail that I get to from woolgathering and contemplation. There are a lot more characters and a lot more ideas than I’ve mentioned here, but this is the core of the thing: A social organization that’s awful but at least slightly rational, a “hero” who’s out to disrupt it in some way, out of something like love; and consequences. Presumably the previous paragraph makes the series title at least a little bit clear: How a war might come about, why it might have something to do with songs. As to how we get from a high concept draped over a skeleton of plot to a proper story, we’ll get to that in my next post, on outlining.

The Moorcock model

“So I feel very little in common with those miles of fat fantasy books and feel almost guilty that, in the wake of Tolkien, I reinvented the Victorian three-decker (a lot of them weren’t that long per volume either!). I could write 15,000 words a day and gave myself three days a volume. That’s how, for instance, the Hawkmoon books were written. 45,000 words was the minimum paperback length for a ‘novel’ (which are more normally 60,000 and up) so the whole four are only 180,000 words, which is shorter than one volume, say, in the Pyat sequence…”

—Michael Moorcock, interview with Quantum Muse

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Michael Moorcock is one of the larger presences in fantasy literature, and in British literature in general. His most famous character is Elric of Melniboné, whose incessant brooding and implausibly large weapon form a classic template for the fantasy anti-hero—but he’s also one of the first fantasists to write in a multiverse (and possibly the inventor of the term?) and has written about the Eternal Champion in the guise of too many other characters and series to count. Most good used bookstores will have at least a few pieces of one or the other of his “three-deckers,” and the proportions and design of the white Elric books are still an archetypal image of fantasy literature to me.

You don’t see slim fantasy novels any more; the genre’s luminaries today tend to work long, though I think the tendency is more pronounced in men than women (when you think “tome-writers” you think Martin, Rothfuss, Sanderson; versus, say, Le Guin, Link, Valente). Charles Stross has a pretty fascinating blog post on why books are the length they are (see also). For an indie publisher whose main product is ebooks, of course, these considerations aren’t so salient—but I cut my teeth on the work of people who write long, and I have the same inclination. The Dandelion Knight is 160,000 words long; The Eighth King, written in rather less time, is 170,000. I’m proposing to write two books at 50,000 words each, so the trilogy, if all goes as planned, will add up to 150,000.

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“I don’t ‘world-build’ and have no interest in what I see as crossword puzzle activities — making up artificial languages and the economies of countries and so forth — and leave that to the people who like to do it. I look for the quickest way to tell the story I want to tell. I am fundamentally a storyteller and the genre in which I tell the story is only chosen because it’s the best genre I can see for telling that story. But since I started an industry has grown up to supply people with fantasy escapes. I’ve said this before, but people accuse me of not doing what they expect from a fantasy trilogy and in response to this I described Elric as a failed escape plan — which makes people furious. My fantasies are, of course, escapism, but they aren’t at root escapist, because they’re written by someone who prefers to confront what scares the crap out of him.”

ibid.

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M. John Harrison has a brief, interesting post on roughly the same topic, to roughly the same effect. I don’t know if I agree with them, necessarily; one of Moorcock and Harrison’s great inheritors is China Miéville, who doesn’t seem to have any problem writing intelligent, imaginative, political fantasy in a meticulously constructed milieu. I would love to write like China Miéville; I have tried to write like China Miéville.

But China Miéville writes fat. Intelligent, imaginative, political—but fat. Fat makes food and books rich, and my own big books do their best to use all the flavor that fat brings out, so don’t think I’m against it; but, with some regrets, I am not in the market for fat this January.

Unfortunately for me, the technique of literary cuisine that requires the most fat is probably worldbuilding.

I think minimal worldbuilding may be key to successful application of the Moorcock model. And I won’t be at all surprised if that pushes me into uncomfortable territory. My tendency in fantasy, so far, has been to resist familiar tropes; for example, The Dandelion Knight’s titular character is an old icon in the story world, as well as a terrorist group, as well as one or more particular living members of that terrorist group, and the significance of all these things is tied in with history in a way that just requires slow immersion and occasional exposition. I’m not quite comfortable with the cognitive economies that come with familiar categories: wizard, dragon, vampire. It makes the whole effort feel too much like D&D for my tastes. It’s not that I don’t enjoy such books; I love A Song of Ice and Fire, jousts and dragons and all. But it’s hard for me to work within those parameters.

Luckily, I have the Western genre to lean on as well, which lets me invent things that still benefit from an easy reference point. So when I talk about a runeslinger, you’re going to understand exactly what I mean; when I talk about a ciudor, that’s not so obvious, but as it becomes clear that a ciudor is a prospector combing the dead cities for old magic and tech, then you get it. There are elections and railroads and cattle rustling, sorcerers and scribes and staves. But the gods of the Ogdoad and Ennead, the magical properties and political importance of black silver, the nature of the deathbirds that patrol the sky… they’re going to have to be applied with a light touch, if at all.

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“To be honest, I started doing trilogies because it was way of selling a novel three times! Rather than doing one long one for the same money, it was more economical to do three very short ones. You’ll note that even when put together, few of my fantasies are as long as the majority of trilogies.”

ibid.

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As I write, I’m in the middle of a great interview with David Farland on the Creative Penn podcast, and there’s an interesting exchange that’s currently in paraphrase, although I may go back and copy it verbatim:

JP: It seems like the criteria you’ve given for writing a bestselling book require a pretty long book, and the bestsellers you’ve described [Harry Potter, Twilight] are long books for their genres. Is length a prerequisite for writing a bestseller?
DF: Yes, I think so. If you look at the bestselling books across a lot of genres, they tend to be much longer than is typical for the genre. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, Gone With the Wind, …
JP: The current digital marketplace is moving toward shorter books, novellas. Is that compatible with writing bestsellers given this insight about length?
DF: Oh, sure. You can just slice up your longer works and give us, what, five chapters at a time? No problem.

I wish they’d gone into this in a bit more depth—I’ve thought hard about it in the context of my own long books, The Dandelion Knight and The Eighth King, and I’ve decided, rightly or wrongly, that it would just take too much time to divide the content into equal-length books, then reorganize them so the internal arc is satisfying. At least in my mind, the structure of a piece of serialized fiction is more tightly constrained than that of a single book, even if the book and the serial are of equal length. It’s true that, to some extent, structure needs to be self-similar at various levels of resolution regardless of the length of the whole work; subplots, chapters, and scenes all need to have some kind of arc, some kind of ratcheting tension and resolution. Keeping someone reading across a chapter break isn’t necessarily qualitatively different from making them buy the next book. But it is different. There’s an evaluation at the end of a series installment that’s more important, and more explicit, than any evaluation that happens inside the book, because the reader is being invited to spend money. So it’s the usual tension:

1. Am I satisfied enough with the story to pony up for the next hit?
2. Am I dissatisfied enough with the story that I need to know what’s next?

Point 2 above may actually be where Moorcock’s series tend to flag, or at least not to conform to this admittedly somewhat marketing-driven structure. Things aren’t often left hanging in, e.g., the Elric books. It’s not quite that loops are never left open; when Elric leaves Melniboné, you do wonder whether he’s going to come back and give Yyrkoon what for, and so on. But that’s not why you read on; it’s not a nagging question. If you read on, you read on for more Elric, not for more plot. Similarly, if you’re hoping for the continuation of the plot line of Blood, you are sure to be disappointed by Fabulous Harbors, which is a collection of wonderful but only tangentially related short stories that nonetheless does its best to serve as vinculum between Blood and The War Amongst the Angels.

Now that I think about it, I can think of a lot of “series” where this is true, many by writers Moorcock admires. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books all qualify, as do Barry Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. So you can certainly create great literature and make a living as a writer with this approach.

But it’s 2015, and part of the point of this project is to go full indie—do what the indies recommend, see whether I can make it work. I have a few years left in me; plenty of time to scorn marketing and follow the muse.

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So now I’ve blown a couple of thousand words on matters of general interest. It’s a nice introduction to the way I think, maybe, or at least what I’m reading and listening to; but in my next long essays I’ll get down to nuts and bolts, with one post on the story world and then one on my outlining process.

The plan

theClaimDuplex

On December 31, 2014, I’m quitting my job as a research professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

From a writer, one typically expects such a sentence to end with a coda like “to focus on my writing, damn the torpedoes and dental insurance.” But I’m not there yet. I have a few self-published books that don’t sell; I’ve never gotten an agent more than provisionally interested in a novel; I haven’t traditionally published a short story since 2008. I also have a wife and two kids, and collectively we need my income to cover the basics.

So: On February 2, 2015, I’ll begin work as a software engineer and data scientist at a startup called Big Health. There are a number of perks associated with this move, notably a zero commute (I’ll work remotely except for quarterly company meetings), a rather better compensation package, and January.

Not every January. But this January? This one is mine. And I know exactly what I’m going to do with it.

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I spend a lot of time with three men in my head—mostly because it beats listening to my inner postal worker muttering about water fluoridation while I’m washing dishes. Those men are Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright of Sterling & Stone and the Self-Publishing Podcast. I haven’t met them or even corresponded with them, but their success in making a living from writing has worn deep channels into my mind over the last year and a half or so. Their fingerprints are all over this site, in fact: The mailing list link, the fact that I’m shelling out for hosting at all, the affiliate links, the ampersanded company name. And January.

Johnny, Sean, and Dave write fast. They’re not the only people who do, but they’ve introduced me to all the other people who do. And they’re at the high end, I think—Johnny has talked about regularly hitting 8000-word daily quotas. At 250 words a page, 8000 words amounts to about 32 double-spaced pages, or a very short novelette. A week’s work, or 40,000 words, is a very short novel. A month’s work, 160,000 words, is The Dandelion Knight, which took me five years to write, edit, and publish.

My daily quotas, when I’ve hit them, have been about 1000 words. Which still adds up, and has added up; I’ve written two novels and a solid double handful of novellas and short stories at that rate. A 30,000-word January would be one of the better writing months I’ve had, for sure; that would be two novelettes or a really good start on a novel.

Note well, though: Those daily quotas have been dialed in almost exclusively on the 50-minute train ride from Trenton to Philadelphia. On a per-hour basis, I write as fast as the SPP guys already.

Maybe I can’t hit 8000 words a day from Day 1. But surely this opens up wider vistas than just starting a novel.

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One of the pillars of the SPP guys’ productivity is beats. This is what everybody else calls outlining. Rachel Aaron swears by beats as well; she claims that knowing what you write before you write it can more or less double your word count per unit time. This is qualitatively consistent with my experience: I spent a couple of days outlining my most recent book, The Eighth King, and routinely hit my word count goals with time to spare. Knowing where your book is going, and by what waypoints, is hugely freeing to creativity at the word-by-word level.

I know this, but I’ve always resisted it. There’s a point, usually rather early in planning, by which I’m really itching to write. I’m at that point as I write these words, in fact, in early December 2014. But I’m resisting it. The thousand words I could write in this hour on the train will be a small fraction of my total word count for January—which is to say, even a small multiplier on my productivity for the month will repay the words I lose now.

Of course, “now” I’m not planning out my writing. Now I’m writing to you about my writing.

Why is that?

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If it was ever new for writers to expose their process, it isn’t any longer. The Writing Excuses crew have a great series of podcasts where they workshop a short story each; the podcasts are free and highly educational, and also a clever funnel into a short anthology, Shadows Beneath, in which they’ve published both the rough and final versions of each story. The SPP guys have their Fiction Unboxed project, the literary equivalent of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where they crowdsourced a genre and story idea, wrote and published the novel in a month, and let their backers into every word and minute of the process. This is work coming from people at the top of their fields, and well worth studying.

But most of us aren’t at the top of our fields. Most of us aren’t full-time writers, and won’t be able or inclined to be in the near future. Most of us don’t have collaborators, like the SPP guys, to spark new ideas and spur us on in story meetings; most of us don’t have the polished critical sensibilities of the Writing Excuses crew.

So, if this little essai has any value at all, it’s this. I’ve been writing as hard as I know how for ten years now, and it’s gotten me somewhere. I’ve traditionally published two short stories, placed respectably in a couple of contests, completed a couple of novels and gotten the occasional sniff of interest from agents. I think there are a lot of people like me out there. In the weeks that follow, I hope this will give shape to the possibilities of your own writing career: What could you do with a month to yourself, if you planned it out? How far could you come in that time? How might it fuel your writing when the month is over?

I don’t have any idea, by the way, what my own answers to these questions might be. That’s part of the point of this.

And it’s long past time to talk about what “this” is.

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I have 20 weekdays in January. I think I can write at an average rate of 5000 words per day, for a total of 100,000 words. I’ll start at 4000 words per day on January 5 and ratchet up by 100 words a day to finish with 6000 words on January 30.

The 100,000 words will be divided among two short fantasy Westerns, The Claim and The Candidate. The third book, The Crescendo, will complete a trilogy, but I have a lot of thoughts about what else might go on in that story world, and there will almost certainly be more books after that. As I write, all three books are planned out with paragraph synopses; The Claim has chapter-by-chapter beats, and I plan to write those for The Candidate during the remainder of December.

I’m hoping to reserve the word count push for mornings. Not that I’ll have any lack of things to do in the afternoons—preparation for the new job, work on postdoc projects, housework, and exercise will hopefully all feature, and of course I’ll be posting raw words and production notes here.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be posting process notes, beats, synopses, and notes about the story world. During January, I’ll take a page from Fiction Unboxed and post a brief diary entry about each day’s work—what was great, what was hard, how my beats failed me, how I transcended them. After January, I’ll continue posting regular updates on the rest of the publication process—revision, cover design, launch plans, and so on.

Of course, like any set of story beats, these plans are provisional. I have an arc plotted out for this little experiment, and it ends in my first real indie publishing success. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, and I am beset by enemies—resistance, obscurity, obligations, poor discipline, cat videos. I can’t promise I’ll show you the secret kung fu to vanquish those enemies; but I think I can promise you a hard and bloody battle. And, really, this is the Internet; what else are you here for?

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Thanks for getting this far. I’ll see you in my next post, tentatively titled “The Moorcock Model.”