Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Announcing Father Lucifer

In this brave new indie world, as it happens,  a book I always wanted to do is no longer so impossible-looking as it used to be.  I've always been at least as much a mystery reader as an SF reader, but for whatever reason, it was SF that I could get contracts to write.   So I'm using my newfound freedom to work on a mystery novel, Father Lucifer,  that I've long wanted to do.  Click on the link; read the intro material if you're interested, or just click to the next post and start reading.  I'll be putting up a couple thousand words a week of it, till I'm done, and then will probably take it down and put it out as an ebook.  Your chance to read it while it's free!

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Political Economy of Experience -- And Not.

 Once upon a time, when I was but a wee tad of a writer, I was going through my first divorce, and was flat broke in Missoula, Montana, and needed to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was going to be starting my doctoral program, within about six weeks. So I called my agent—this was in the long ago days when that potentially might have some effect on a writer’s income—and said, “Get me work, I don’t care what.”

Honestly, I thought I was going to end up writing porn.

What happened was more interesting in several ways. It turned out that Gold Eagle, which was part of Harlequin, which was at the time the largest single publisher of fiction in the world, had come up against a small crisis because a writer (I never found out who) had screwed up with getting a new men’s action‑adventure series going for them, and they were now desperate to have three series books, the first of which had to fit an already‑done cover, about a time‑traveling soldier who had to be named Daniel Samson (marketing having decided that two Biblical names was what they wanted; I’d’ve picked “Jehosophat Shalmaneser” if it had been up to me). Other than that it needed to be about 60,000 words, soon, and it didn’t need to be good as long as it was soon.

(If you don’t know what men’s action‑adventure was—the genre is much smaller now and much more restrictive than it was in 1990— this excerpt from the vaults will explain a bit more. My take is that it was always a bit mis‑marketed, and that the actual readers, of whom I knew a few, were not who the editors thought they were working for. That essay is aimed mainly at collectors and buyers, to give them some idea of what they would be buying and collecting, so be sure to resist the subliminal pressure, especially my mentioning that you are feeling very sleepy, your eyelids are heavy, you feel warm and safe, you are descending a long staircase, and you notice that everything I say is a good idea).

I wrote what I called The Guns of Time and Gold Eagle eventually titled Wartide (a single word could be in bigger letters) in eight days, typing from when I got up in the morning to when I went over to the library to read research for the next day’s work. 62,000 and change, eight days, done, with the warning that I would need to revise it and have the second book by Christmas; Gold Eagle paid the agent, who paid me, and I had some money to get me to Pittsburgh.

Now, I was not particularly thrilled with the results, and one reason was that it was set in the winter of 1943‑4 in the mountain campaign in Italy, very deliberately because there weren’t many veterans of that campaign around even then (it had never been large and it broke many men’s health). There was a lot I just didn’t know, and speed‑reading was not an adequate substitute. But in a bar in Missoula, I bumped into a guy who ran a historical firing range and did various kinds of outfitting, so I was able to get a tiny bit of experience firing an M1, trying to persuade a mule to do what I wanted it to do (which is like a whole second Ph.D. in itself), and a few other things. Since I had decided the next book would be set in the Mexican War, I also fired some black powder weapons; time didn’t permit riding with authentic tack before I had to leave, and I'm not sure how much a guy who would be just learning to ride could learn from that, but I at least got to look at Mexican-War-era horse hardware and photograph it.

I didn’t quite realize it then—too busy and life was too crazy—but I had found one of the hidden benefits of being a writer, in those good old days when traditional publishing was the only game there was: you could go have adventures on the publisher’s dime. By the following spring when I was working on Union Fires, the Dan Samson adventure set in the Civil War (my title was Castle Thunder which was just as melodramatic but had something to do with the story), I was in easy driving range to Richmond, and could spend some time with Civil War re‑enactors. Within a couple of years, for Mother of Storms, I would be spending a goodly part of the summer of 1992 driving and catching third‑class buses around Oaxaca and Chiapas trying to get caught in a hurricane (I didn’t, but I did soak up a great deal of non‑tourist southern Mexico). Then I started to do the books with Buzz Aldrin and found myself on all kinds of marvelous back stage tours of various high‑end space and defense facilities and a few seagoing adventures besides, and worked on Payback City (spending almost the whole first part of the advance before the publisher stiffed me) which had me going out with arson detectives in Detroit in the wee hours of the morning. For about seven or eight years there, I traveled all over the place and did immense amounts of cool stuff—a bit more if you count the last hurrah of going out and interviewing and exploring the world of UFO cults centering on the San Luis Valley, and visiting many interesting‑in‑many‑senses places on the Western Slope of Colorado, for Gaudeamus.

I saw rockets take off from up close, handled some pretty bizarre weapons, talked to former spies and current smugglers, spent some interesting time with people trying to gross me out and more interesting time with people showing me things I’d never seen or heard before.

A couple of years ago when an editor was looking at perhaps bringing out a paper version of Payback City after all these years (the possibility fell through; maybe I'll do it via Metrocles House one of these days), she said, “I feel like I know how to torch a building, how to smuggle explosives, and how to look for an arsonist.”

That used to be pretty common for an adventure story writer, and as you may have heard before from me, I consider knowing how things work and how they’re done to be central to any adventure story. For decades, at least from a bit before World War One until the 1990s, if you hadn’t been there, you went, and if you hadn’t done it, you did (or as close as your physical condition would allow). If you had to fake it, you found people who knew the real stuff and talked to them first hand and ran it by them. (Occasionally still blowing it, I hasten to add).

This wasn’t particularly a divide between the respected literary writers and the adventure fiction writers; sure, Michener, Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, and Jean Auel were/are all notoriously research‑happy, but Tom Wolfe apparently did immense amounts of going out and seeing for The Bonfire of the Vanities, and was known as a reporter long before he turned to fiction. And after all, the legendary George Plimpton got to be a legend by being the guy who had no business being there, but was, and wrote about it. For that matter you don’t have to read very far to realize that Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates have both tried many of the things they write about.

Just after I had seen a total eclipse from the deck of a ship at sea with Buzz Aldrin, he turned to me with that sardonic lopsided grin that he probably could trademark, and said, “Now try to answer this one: What was it like? I’ve been trying to answer it for thirty years.”

The truth is, of course, that I can’t—no writer can—but many readers love to see a good writer try to take them to a place, time, and situation the writer knows that they are unlikely ever to witness.

And this brings me around to a sad change in publishing. During my grim hiatus, I probably could not have successfully sold my memoirs if I’d been the lover of four presidents simultaneously, and could not have typed a plot summary of The Cat in the Hat in less than a month, and I was away from things for quite a while.

When I came back, publishing was to some extent going broke (an extent which your editor will lie to you about), to a great extent unwilling to put much money into a book for any purpose other than acquiring a celeb name, and to a tremendous extent not interested in financing people to go out and have experiences (except for a few who went to war—and even there, a surprising number of the journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan have been freelancing, i.e. not on anyone’s dime, just hoping that what they write will sell for enough soon enough to keep them going).

Probably most importantly, tha interwbz had come along, and it was possible for anyone to find pictures and information about just about any point on Earth or Mars.

And not least, publishers had developed the tactic of drag‑out negotiating combined with inflexible deadlines: i.e. they would commence negotiation on a book that might take a year to write in January, with the delivery date in December; in June they would still be haggling, so that the writer had lost half a year of working time (and in traditional publishing, if you work on the book before the contract is signed, you are simply a fool—this is one more advantage of the indie world); the publisher would finally hand over the signing money (which would not be enough to finance research anyway) in September, when it could mostly go to pay down debt incurred while waiting for it, and still demand that the book be delivered in December.

How could anyone do that?

Many writers nowadays never leave the desk. Say you’ve never been to Africa but you have to do a first person description of crossing a bridge in Lagos, where you see someone go by in a boat, and part way over the okada driver wipes out, causing a loud argument that you can’t understand to break out around you, which causes a brawl, during which you slip away to wait for another ride. A scene with all that in it would run perhaps 1000‑2000 words, whether described by someone who had been there or described by someone who grabbed the first few pictures, videos, and articles he could find off the Web (my actual time: four minutes). There is more than enough detail in that “research” to quickly fill those couple thousand words; pause here and there and type a few sentences to describe each thing, and you’re done in no time.

And nowadays, that’s what publishers are willing to pay for—often that’s all publishers are willing to pay for. I’m far from the only person encountering this; many good writers who used to run‑go‑see and bring back whatever they could recall and express—sometimes well, sometimes badly, but something they had seen and felt and tasted—are being told “You were always so good at sounding like you’d been there. So sit‑read‑type. Just sound like you were there. You don’t have the money or the time or any reason to actually run‑go‑see, so just sound like it. If you have spare money, don’t waste time when you could be writing, hire a research assistant to look that stuff up for you so you can write faster.” (That last is not a line that I heard—but I trust the person who told me that that’s what they told her). Many younger writers are emphatically told that the “professional” way is internet research (and naturally tend to believe it because we writers are a cowardly and slothful lot—why else would we pick a job you can commute to in your jammies, less than 50 feet from the fridge?) and that “it’s the writing that makes it authentic.”

Except, you know, they haven’t been there. And it’s not the writing that makes it authentic, it’s the authenticity that makes the writing.

I really, really wonder if perhaps this is one reason why in at least mystery, sf, fantasy, horror, and spy fiction, more and more of the good young writers just breaking in are from what used to be called “exotic” backgrounds (i.e. outside the US, non‑white, either non‑English‑speaking or at least not‑Mid‑Atlantic‑Everybody‑Talk, often from various strangely eventful childhoods). Because frankly, nobody is so good that they can write the authentic without having been there, consistently and convincingly, every time and without making odd little errors. The publishers can toss blame around and try to convert the writer into the fiction‑production‑technician at the remote Web‑to‑prose‑work‑station, but where there is no experience, the phony ultimately will come leaking through.

You might say the choice between run‑go‑see and sit‑read‑type writing is the difference between, oh, say, Wife of the Gods and Tarzan of the Apes, or between The Cruel Sea and Horatio Hornblower. Some of us read because we’re probably never going there, we’ll probably never stand anywhere similar, but we want to ask What was it like?

But the scary thing, of course, is that it isn’t just writers who can get on the net, acquire fake knowledge, and feel like they’ve been there.

A woman calls her husband on the cell phone and says, “Hey, be careful, the radio says there’s a crazy man driving the wrong way on the freeway.”

“It’s not just one guy driving the wrong way,” he says, “It’s everybody!”

In a world where more and more depends on understanding how complicated this human tangle is—and where more and more distant complexities entangle our lives—we all end up writing our own knowledge base. And every year more of it is sit‑read‑type, and less of it is run‑go‑see. Am I the only one who has a problem with this?

Why I curse Apple twenty times a day .... and have been on Macs since 1986

Dead hard drive last night.

Apple store early afternoon.

Because I'd had work done less than 90 days ago,  the nice guy there was able to roll in the needed hard drive replacement (rolling in means "we'd've fixed it as part of the flat fee if it had been broken, so since it was almost broken, we'll pretend it was and you already paid for it").

And because I've been using Time Machine scrupulously, everything was there on the backup drive.

Total effect, zero dollars of expenditure, and an effective clean up and defragmenting of my hard drive.  Less than one day lost from work.

And besides, I curse at all machinery, constantly.  I will be among the first to be stood up against the wall and edited by our robot overlords as soon as they are developed, and my last words will be, "But I didn't mean it about Apple or Subaru!"

In the midst of our trivial lives...

The universe can always find room for more trivia. My hard drive has crashed. To type on my iPhone with my presbyopia, and keep my thoughts somewhat organized, I must insert frequent line breaks, Creating an effect that illiterates may mistake for verse. Meanwhile delays may be expected for those who: are due Form Letter 9 in reply to their emails to the previous post, await the newsletter that was to accompany the release of the paperback of Daybreak Zero tomorrow, or otherwise sought amusement here. The appointment at the Apple Store is already set. I shall return. Meanwhile remain calm. Drink plenty of fluids. Count your blessings. Avoid spreading rumors, infections, or panic. Rest assured that the authorities are aware of the situation.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Invading Grace

Of the world’s great playwrights, I most love Plautus. I prefer him to Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Euripides, you name it; you may have all of them for greatness, and I might even agree with you, but no one else makes me laugh as long and deeply.

The shortest prologue to any Plautus play is the one to Pseudolus, which some of you will recognize as the basis of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It goes as follows:

“This next play is by Plautus” (his comedies were performed at festivals as parts of all-day-long programs) “and it’s long, so you’d better stand up and stretch your legs.”*

What can I say that the master didn’t say more clearly—and infinitely more succinctly—than I ever will?


Back? Comfy? Here we go.

Half a dozen small annoyances attacked first thing Friday morning; the life insurance company I was changing to took a double premium in a classic bait and switch, and though my insurance agent is getting the situation fixed, my money back, and a new provider, it has consumed quite a bit of time and frustration The reshuffling of the house because two kids are home from college is not yet completed, so all things were in inconvenient places “just for now.” Dishes weren’t washed in the excitement of the family togetherness, so coffee required first fishing the needed gear out of cold dirty dishwater and washing it—a job neither of us really wanted to face without coffee. But She of the Green Eyes had slept badly, and looked more pathetic than I did, so the day began with feeling around for the drain plug in the cold greasy dishwater, and a resolution to work on looking more pathetic. And Russell Hoban and Christopher Hitchens were dead (a point to which I’ll return later) and very likely to remain so.

So when I finally left home to go down to the office, at 7:45 am, which is at least an hour later than usual, I was in a Mood. (Also in a Kia that is overdue for new shocks and struts. The Mood tends to get more mileage but it’s an even bumpier ride.)

I decided to start the day by writing someplace where they serve breakfast, because I really wanted to cook and therefore could not let myself. I enjoy cooking far too much and when a morning just keeps seeming more and more wrong-footed, if I cook in the kitchen at my office, I find it extremely comforting to lose a couple of hours whomping up an enormous amount of something complicated, and then eat it all. (See my forthcoming work, The Gorging GourmetHaute Cuisine on 7500 Calories a Day). But I didn’t really have the couple hours to lose, and contra John Scalzian legend, and more like David Mamet, I generally get things done in coffee shops (though coffee houses are indeed another matter).

So I went to JK’s Café, which is a coffee-shop/diner-in-a-mall just off 60th and 6&85, if you know the area where Commerce City piles up against North Denver (and even if you don’t, it still is). Once there, I discovered that because the room where I usually charge the computer battery had been occupied by a sleeping stepkid, I had neglected charging, and I was almost out of battery time. One more for the not good day … except that I explained the problem to the waiter (this is not the sort of place where very many people bring laptops to breakfast) and a three-waiter search eventually turned up a table where there was working power access. (Nice job, Vero!)

They went to all this extra trouble for the sad old fat guy and even seemed to like helping me out, on a very busy morning. JK’s is pretty crazy on a Friday in the holiday season. There were a couple of large tables of work crews having breakfast before going out, a couple of what looked like office meetings for small businesses, what appears to be a band that played late at an after-hours and was pouring in calories before going home to bed, and quite a few couples and triples of people enjoying breakfast out on a Friday, so the place was jammed and loud with laughter. The morning people were out in force, and conversations were an alternation of friendly insults, inside jokes, and group roaring. It’s a good sound. It beats the hell out of the Music You Didn’t Like The First Time Station.

I hope I was appropriately expressive about my gratitude for the help with my electrical umbilicus, the food was excellent as it always is, and that added blessing of needing help and getting much more and better help than I needed sent me straight into a state of gratitude, so I enjoyed the uproar around me. Toward the end of breakfast the insurance agent called me back, asked a dozen questions, and said, “It shall be fixed,” and it looks like it is. I got a bunch of stuff written and went home to write more and wrap Christmas presents. It turned out to be a productive, cheerful day.

Anyway, that intrusion of gratitude into my life made me think of a quote from Dante Rossetti,
"The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank,"
which led me back to thoughts of Hitchens, since I was an atheist for more than twenty years, and re-found faith about seven years ago, and therefore spent a fair bit of time talking to Hitchens in my head, before, during, and after my conversion. (I wouldn’t call it a re-conversion; the kind of Christian I was before I was an atheist is very different from the kind I am now).

My conversations with Hitchens are very like my conversations with God: I organize the textual and experiential evidence into two columns, one labeled “Me” and one labeled “Other”, and play both parts. Of course I like to think I am always reasonably fair to Other, and of course I’m not, but Other has so far never appeared to disagree. There was theoretically a possibility that I might actually have met Hitchens in the flesh, of course, and now there’s not, which leaves him roughly tied with God. (He seems to have enjoyed close-fought contests, so perhaps that’s all right).

That thought and the remaining glow from the cheerfulness infesting JK’s Café—joy, really, it’s usually a pretty happy place on Friday mornings but at holiday time it borders on giddy—led me to think a bit about the experience of the divine. (Those who wish to discuss it further in email are welcome to do so, but they should check to see whether they are likely to receive Form Letter 9 before emailing me. )


A sudden veering in the text, as if hundreds of words were all going somewhere else immediately:

I’m an immanentist as Deleuze used the term, or as Gregory Bateson did, and as I think William Blake and Alan Turing were implicitly, which is to say a radical immanentist, or antitranscendentalist. Immanentists of my stripe are a minority even in my own very loose and dissent-tolerant offshoot of Christianity, and have never been common anywhere, but present in a small scattering everywhere in the history of Christian, Jewish, and pagan thought, and in rather larger numbers in Buddhism, Shinto, and the complex spiritual traditions of China, and a persistent underground on the edges of Islam. Radical immanentism is some version of the position that the Divine arises as a natural consequence of the interaction of mind with matter; there is no separate aphysical spiritual realm in which things exist, only a realm of meaning that the human mind overlays on the physical. Aristarchus said he’d seen Plato’s table but not its tableness; immanentism agrees, but adds that the tableness is the Divine in the table.

(The more conventionally religious view, the antonym of immanentism, is transcendentalism—where there’s somewhere for God to be separately, whether sitting on a golden throne just beyond the blue glow caused by Rayleigh scattering, pervasively next to everything in a set of alternate dimensions, in a world that only he controls the doors to, or at the North Pole making toys with elves. Hitchens preferred to publicly debate transcendentalists because it takes very little effort, as I just demonstrated, to make them look silly, and like any fencer who likes to win, he took the easy openings when they presented themselves ).

I think that the thing I experience as “God” when I pray is probably internal communication with Mostly Sub-and-Non-Verbal “Programs” (which I’ll call MS&NVPs) running on a little glob of cells in my head (quite likely the one that Newburg and D’Aquili are fascinated with), and that when I see the Divine around me, what is happening is that something in my surroundings is activating that little ball of cells, and the program is interpreting it to me. Neither the MS&NVPs nor the ball of cells created me—let alone the universe—and it seems unlikely that the MS&NVPs have much connection to the world beyond my own body, except through my senses and social communications.  In that regard they are like any other part of the mind. (Nor did I create the ball of cells, or the MS&NVPs, any more than I invented the English I speak or my generally heterosexual drives).

Now, the radical or extreme immanentist view is frequently part of a rationale for atheism, via the reductionist move of saying Well, then it’s nothing but a bunch of electrical currents in a bundle of cells in your head. This, it seems to me, is the equivalent of saying that Nude Descending a Staircase is “nothing but” blobs of pigment dried in thin layers on canvas, or Haydn’s Creation is “just” a set of instructions for making sounds of particular pitches and durations, and akin to the belief on the part of some undergrads that if they bought the textbook and carried it around in their pack, they must know the material.

For me, the stumbling block to my atheism, once I began to feel a need to challenge it, was that over time evolution appears to either transform or erase the unnecessary and the useless, losing or repurposing profitless costs.  If a species of birds never need to fly, their physiology and wing structure is a burden on their survival and reproduction, so the birds who can’t fly have an actual relative advantage over those who can, and eventually crowd the flyers out of the gene pool. I wasn’t converted intellectually—conversion for me was an emotional experience at the end of my rope, which it usually seems to be for converts—but the intellectual rationale that allows me to be comfortable with having a faith grows out of that: the MS&NVPs in that odd ball of cells almost has to be good for something, a part of basic human capability, or it would long ago have either become something useful or atrophied.

Consistent with my general beliefs that human beings ought to develop capacities—that everyone should learn to draw, make music, write, act, calculate, reason, dance, throw a ball or a punch, read a poem or a track, and so on, for no reason other than most people can learn to do so—I came to the position that having some sort of relationship with the MS&NVPs is important, and that position has dumped me, not completely willingly, back into a kind of belief (Like many who belong to it, I usually refer to my religion, which is Christian-derived and –related, as a “faith” rather than a confession or religion).

Now, an entirely reasonable question—which I imagine Hitchens asking in a tone of considerable impatience— is, good for what? What does that blob of cells do that other things can’t? And why should we assume anything in our bodies or the physical world is good for anything, or in fact takes any interest in us? Don’t the kidneys just filter crud out of our blood and organize it into piss because that’s what they do? And we don’t think our kidneys love us!

This is getting so close to the point that I feel a need for another digression, which doubtless Hitchens would figure was an evasion, and you are of course welcome to regard it as such, but here we go, away from the point in order to come at it another way:


Not so much taking Christ out of Christmas as letting everyone else in ….

Ages ago, when I used to put up a Friday Question on the late lamented GEnie, one question I asked was what the first true World Holiday would be—the first day celebrated all over the planet by everyone—and Greg Feeley, who has insights the way some cat ladies have cats (i.e. more than even he can keep track of and enough to freak some people out**) suggested Dickens Christmas, i.e. the secular version of the holiday that is all Santa Claus and reindeer and “real meaning is giving” and all that. For Secular/Dickens Christmas, I would say that the sacred texts are probably A Christmas Carol (and its many adaptations), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (I’m thinking of the Rankin/Bass animation more than the song or the Monkey Ward’s children’s book), How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, It’s a Wonderful Life, and “The Gifts of the Magi.” I’m sure I’m overlooking something; feel free to drop me a note and point out what.

Now, what do all those have in common? The business about giving and gratitude, of course, and a scattering of messages you’d find in any pop psych book, like not letting your real self slide away (as Scrooge does), understanding that you are important and special (like Rudolph or George Bailey), and finding the strength of ten Grinches when you really need it. But I think there’s a component they share with the original story as we find it mostly in Luke, with a few addenda in Matthew and an interpretation in John:

Christmas stories are stories of Divine Invasion. Something utterly unexpected comes into the world and things abruptly change for the better. It might be a baby who becomes the first human being to be fully conscious of his Divine nature; or an old miser’s perception that he has become something much less than he ought to be and decision to turn away from that road before it is too late; or a young couple mutually discovering that they would each sacrifice their pride for each other; or a convenient reindeer with a glowing nose just when the storm of the millennium hits. Whatever it is, it was unexpected, it intrudes into everyday life, and once it has intruded, everyday life is forever altered.

And that’s what I think that sub-or-non-vocal program on that ball of cells is about. Most of the time the best thing we can do for our immediate family, clan, and tribe, and above all else for our chances of success at life, is look out for Number One, tend our own gardens, and take a general attitude of “I’m in the boat, Jack.” But now and then, we need to take the long view—the idea that we owe something to the species, to the ecosystem, to the seventh generation, or if you like to eternity.

And that’s one interesting characteristic of that little blob of cells that has been clearly identified by the guys who wire up people’s heads to watch which neurons fire. When that wad of cells is really active, the person who is praying or meditating experiences a sense of the boundaries between the self (and its concerns and physical existence and so forth) dissolving into an immense awareness of the things around it.

I’m not talking here about the classic cosmic rush of a beginning meditator***, which is more a willed hallucination brought on by a desire to feel all cosmic and groovy and stuff. I mean the quiet point I reach after half an hour doing katas or sitting meditation, or in repetitive prayer when I’ve long ago lost count, where there’s a sudden clear awareness that the world is one, and that the sound of the radio in the next apartment, the random motions of the fly walking on the wall, and the roughness of the carpet under my ass are at one with you and the Pythagorean theorem and the janitor at a grade school in Walla Walla, Washington, along with the quasars and the plankton.

It’s not dramatic and Hollywood would never depict it as it actually happens—perhaps a “hunh” or a slight relaxation of the shoulders, certainly not a huge rush of colors, lights, and synthesizers.

In other words, the long view. The feeling that the world is more than sleeping, hugging, crying, laughing, eating, defecating, fucking, fighting, and squabbling, and that we ought to treat it, and the people in it, as if they mattered a great deal.

What is that little blob of cells for? It’s the emergency long view system. It brings you the insight that you can’t let yourself have (because it would overthrow your everyday life) right when you absolutely must have it. It’s the still small voice of conscience in some people some of the time; the moment of thinking, no, I won’t do that, that’s wrong. It’s the perception that the people will be better off in three generations if we do this now. It’s the guardian of the interests of the species, the ecology, maybe of sentience itself, over the very long run. It’s the thing that bends the arc of history very gently toward justice, and the will that the next generation will be a bit kinder and slightly more decent than our own.

Normally, it would be a hindrance. People who live their whole lives according to the long view and the greater good, a.k.a. saints and fanatics (depending on whether we approve of their opinions), are not noted for the comfort and ease of their lives, or for having conventional success. But now and then it is what we have to have. Lives go down the sewer of obsessions with worthless things, or with petty cruelty or revenge, and remain in stagnating whirlpools for decades. People stand in the way of the clear needs of the rest of the world even when it profits them little; bloody minded destructiveness takes over minds and cultures and whispers, Evil, be thou my good.  They desperately need a light—an in-sight—to call them home to their greater good.

And sometimes, right when they need that light, that little ball of cells lights up like a Christmas tree.


Almost, the point ...

A radical immanentist doesn’t need God for much, on one level. As the joke runs, we could never be Jehovah’s Witnesses because we didn’t see the accident. In our way of seeing things, God wasn’t needed for there to be a universe, or even as the source of ordinary, common-sense morality like not cheating and stealing, not initiating violence, or not screwing up other people’s mutual arrangements for our selfish ends or peculiar anxieties.

But those MS&NVPs are there because they’re a lifeline to the bigger world. When we have really made a mess of things and are all out of ideas, they invade. They tell us that as long as reindeer are magical already (e.g. they fly and talk), one more bit of magic, however inexplicable, even a glowing red nose, is to be welcomed, not condemned; that destroying a whole community’s Christmas service because you feel pissy about them eating roast beast is wrong; that a man who gave up the love of his life long ago for the love of money can still turn around and extend some love into the world before it’s too late.

And of course that a child born in a stable may have something of value to tell us all.

What do we need God for?

Because now and then, all of us can use a good invasion.

And because our mind is occupied with the petty, the foolish, the prideful, and so many things that ultimately don’t matter, things that are no part of our better natures, just as in a nation occupied by hostile foreigners, the hope of an invasion can keep us resisting till the day it comes.

So this time of year, an annoying morning, the disappearance of a voice I always enjoyed, the frustration of so many little things not going the way they should …. ends in a small act of patient kindness, then listening to people really enjoying each other’s company, and a finally a burst of grace, because, you know, it’s Christmas.

Happy invasion day, friends.

Footnotes, for those of you who count not the cost, but have an asterisk, and therefore count the asterisk:

*Some translators translate that as a polite expression for “better go piss” because it actually says “stand up and stretch your groin muscles” if you translate it into NFL (which would be either National Football League or Naughty Funny Latin) and they think it’s a euphemism. Perhaps they are right, but in my working experience as a translator, Plautus does not need extra help with talking dirty, which he does better than anybody, and if he’d wanted to say “better go piss” that’s what he’d have said.

**See, for example, his marvelous novella Kentauros, which anybody who loves mythology and pop culture (and realizes their essential unity) ought to have read already. Pretend there’s a quiz tomorrow and go get yourself a copy!

***An old Zen joke: a young monk works very hard at meditating but just can’t seem to have any experience beyond just sitting there, till one day, after several years of practice, he rushes from his mat to his master, and says, “Master, I just had a vision of the Buddha sailing in a crystal vision through the universe of the farthest stars, and fifty thousand blessed souls singing to him!” The master nodded and said, “Pay attention to your breathing and it will go away.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Articles that start fiction ideas, #2

A piece by Timothy Pychyl in Psychology Today points out something that is of obvious use to beginning fiction writers, but of even more use to those of us trying to retain and use the Beginner's Mind:

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly at first.

I've seen a few potential book doctoring clients whose fundamental problem is that they're not willing to let their first book suck, and have thus found some way to waste many years on something that can't possibly be any good, ever, rather than figure that to write a bad book, all the way to the end, is a major accomplishment, just as running a really slow marathon, getting a third of the way through a weight loss program, etc. may be all that's on the menu for you at this point in your development.

In general I try to turn down contracts that involve being the seventeenth sow's-ear-processor on the project, usually with a curt "Start with silk next time, and learn purse structure.  Drop this and get on with the next time."

Pychyl's better thought, though, which I think applies for everyone, is that if you can't learn from doing poor work, you probably can't learn at all. (Yes, you can learn more from doing good work.  Sometimes that is on the menu, and sometimes it's not.  Sitting and starving till it is will not cause it to become available, but doing poor work -- and enjoying it, Pychyl's main point -- is often the only road there is to being able to do it well, and that's part of why so many people never start.)

Personal example: I usually turn on my phone's voice memo feature at church choir rehearsal, so I can review later.  Since the phone is in my pocket, the thing that is clearest and loudest will be my own voice.  This means hearing what I do when I am simultaneously looking for a pitch, trying to read the words at the same time, and occasionally remembering to breathe.  It's an incredibly awful noise -- but it's how I get to sounding right by performance. 

Last thought about this: we don't depict nearly enough of this in fiction and in fact we resist it when it shows up.  One of the editors that Betsy Mitchell had supply Buzz Aldrin and I with comments for Encounter with Tiber had been a Star Trek editor for a while, and couldn't understand why there were places in the book where engineers and scientists, desperately trying to get something to work, would try things that didn't work, or made the situation worse.  Sometimes those engineers didn't even seem to know what was going on.  We received a stern little note telling us that all those mistakes not only delayed the story but they would destroy the reader's respect and sympathy for the engineer-characters -- a hero should know what to do and it should work!

Of course, phrased that baldly, it's obvious what was wrong with that.   (We spent a while crafting a note explaining it).  But sometimes the most interesting thing to do is to give the job to someone who has to do it -- and doesn't yet know how.  When I think about the tinkering and struggling in Neville Shute's Trustee from the Toolroom (a nerdy machinist who builds models for a hobby finds himself in Clive Cussler territory) or Harry's many collisions with the porch roof and everything else in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Black and Blue Magic (why don't magical wings come with directions?), I think those things in part made those books.  It might have been great to see Asimov's roboticists coping with a stripped bolt and no tool to take it out, or Kip (in Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel) struggle for a few pages with a valve that just wouldn't close, before he figured out what he did wrong three steps ago.

Oh, and we did win the argument, and all that knuckle-barking, frustration-generating struggle is still there in Encounter with Tiber.  Whether you're going to the moon or hitting a pitch (baseball or choir), starting off badly may be all there is, and it beats not starting.

Monday, December 19, 2011

For the first time anywhere: The Quiet Guy It Always Was

New from Metrocles House (my personal publishing operation, which I figured to be SEO‑optimized for anyone searching with the combination ancient, cynic, and fart):

The Quiet Guy It Always Was.

This story is about five years old. It never found a home in the science fiction or the mainstream literary magazines, so here it is, a world premiere. People sometimes seem surprised that I’ll put out an often rejected story (about a third of the fiction in Apostrophes and Apocalypses had been turned down all over the landscape and not been published elsewhere), but if a story seems to your eyes to work and to do what it should do, there are three possibilities:

a)   something is wrong with your eyes or your definition of what a story should do,
b)   it hasn’t been to the right editor yet, and the right editor may not have a job yet. Perhaps she’s still finishing eighth grade, or serving out one more tour before she goes Reserve and takes the college benefit. Or maybe you just haven’t happened to see the market listing for Ablating Stories, or
c)    you’ve written a good story that is one way or another in an uncomfortable corner for the current market. If that happens, you’re apt to get a number of notes from editors to the effect of “I like this but …” followed by some non‑quality consideration, such as “my mother reads the magazine” or “the insurance doesn’t cover angry mobs.”

Now, if you have a chance to publish or self‑publish, if the problem is a)—quite possible if you’re a beginner, but less so after a decade or two of writing—then you might as well put it out there, because chances are everything else you’re doing has similar problems, and you need to keep trying until one of two things happens: you learn to perceive and fix the problems, or it gets really dark and they start throwing dirt over you. Till then, you keep putting it out there, to editors or audiences, and just hope enough people will see it your way, until your perception develops enough to tell you what the matter is, or it sells. If a story has really been everywhere, and you think it’s great and really can’t see a thing wrong with it, and the story is very important to you, you might look for a developmental editor or book doctor; for a fee, they’ll tell you the truth as they see it, and that may clear up the mystery. But frankly, ten submissions will cost you a tiny fraction of what one book doctor’s assessment would, and is apt to do you more good.

If the problem is b), it will only find the right editor, or in the indie world the right audience, if you keep putting it out there, so you do. And do. And do.

And if the answer is c), well, here we are with my little problem child.

Editorial comment overwhelmingly boiled down to “too much of a science fiction story for us” at mainstream places, and “cool story but not science fiction” at sf places. It always seemed very sfnal to me: 
medical and surgical technology are tech and therefore “scientific”, are they not?
Applications of new and existing tech, so it’s even hard sf, check? 
The possibility that tech may lead to new kinds of people, new ways of being, new feelings or different expressions of old ones—this is not science fiction?

The thing is, the tech in The Quiet Guy It Always Was is very close to present day, and it has to do with sex and gender and identity, which gets some people all squirmy (I should probably say this might not be bedtime reading for your younger kids). And probably not least, it has to do with the idea that medical technology is enabling new definitions of gender, preference, and desire—not just adjustments with respect to old definitions, but the gradual emergence of people who aren’t quite like anyone who existed before systematic reconstruction was possible.

Right now that possibility is pretty much unexplored in the real world—just try to imagine convincing the insurance company that you would be better off as something no one has ever seen before, than you are with a more conventional birth body and ordinary preferences aimed at other peoples' birth bodies. 

But the change is coming.  Surgery is getting cheaper and better and more reversible, and the psychology of human sexuality keeps turning up surprises. There are going to be some new kinds of people, who have new kinds of bodies and like to do new kinds of things with them. It’s about time to start exploring that in science fiction.

This is a story about the possibilities now opening up, and to my surprise, it came out … well, exuberant, if you like the idea of human beings discovering new things they like and getting them. (Vile, I guess, if you don’t like the idea of perverts discovering new perversions, but if that’s your reaction, let me just say: Pbbbbt.) I just can’t see that as a problem; when it comes to genders and preferences, the more the merrier. But of course, science fiction, especially hard sf, is traditionally about problems, not about exuberance.

Anyway, in more traditional SF you usually mess with the tech or with the kinds of people or—rarely—with both as long as one is distinctly subordinated to the other. (Gibson’s Idoru and Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand are about as far as I’ve seen it go).

In general, in more traditional science fiction, wonder is kept under control (and the story is kept comprehensible) by changing the tech a lot and the people very little, or vice versa; in the more daring stuff, the tech change explains the people change or vice versa. So either people who are pretty much like us are waving their zdarkas around, or people who practice fn’tang (note the apostrophe or extra skiffy goodness) are very strange but they are interacting with our world or a very familiar fictional one. More rarely, the story is about how the zdarka explains the fn’tang or vice versa. The Quiet Guy It Always Was takes things about one more step, I think, than a science fiction editor is usually comfortable with, though not a very big step—it’s a new world where people can be rebuilt to be able to pursue what they didn’t even know they really wanted, and wanting new things and getting them turns out to be fun.

I regard the ending as the happiest I’ve ever written.

Around 5700 words, if that makes a difference. Priced at 99 cents at my e‑junkie store (which has both mobi and epub) and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble (no relation, by the way, since every so often people ask, I guess because they think I’m noble). 

If I’ve intrigued you, check it out and drop me a note. You’re going to spend so many dollars in your life, what are the odds that this will actually be the most foolish one?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Well, okay, one more person in the house & then I'll pretend I'm done for a while

Martin Shoemaker, over in Dean's comments section, pointed out I hadn't come up with anyone to be the agents in this typology, and of course he was right.  So here goes:

•Wayne is a boarder at the Big House.  He used to take  up 15% of the floorspace in Aunt Edna’s lonely room in the Big House, but that was really all right, because he would argue Grandpa into letting her have a much bigger room, and even if he couldn't get her everything she wanted, at least Wayne kept her company and would stand up for her when the rest of the family picked on her.  Now and then he would win arguments with Ted for her, saving her a great deal of stress and anxiety, and Wayne was always after Larry about getting a look at the bank statements.

But now that she’s moved out, he wants her to give up that room in town, move into his new little house with him, pay him rent, and let him handle everything, and it's by no means clear that he'll handle it better than she will. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Escape from the Revenge of the Son of Aunt Edna

Aunt Edna drew quite a response – about a dozen emails so far – and you all know how the old girl likes attention.  I have begun to allow her some meat with her gruel because she’s been so good.  I’m also taking a moment here to give everyone an Aunt Edna progress report of sorts – suggestions from other people.

I should first mention that the very first appearance of Aunt Edna was in a long phone conversation with my old, great friend Jerry Oltion, and he sent me a quick email on the subject of her:

Hmm.  It's an insightful and possibly more accurate analogy when extended like this, but I confess to a fondness for the original one in which Aunt Edna was locked in the attic and only fed when she produced the magical thing that only she knew how to do (that must be just like the last one, only blue this time).  Then Edna realizes she can just climb out the window and go sell her magical creations in a craft fair, and the rest of the family collapses in an orgy of cannibalism.

But that's probably because I identify with Edna.

Actually, I don’t remember that version at all but Jerry and I both make stuff up all the time – it’s what fiction writers do.  The thing I suppose I would most emphasize is that Aunt Edna has a tough row to hoe because she’s been kept in the dark for a long time, but also because she has really, really liked her dependency – and frankly, that dependency was a pretty good deal for a lot of us in the old days, roughly 1840-1999, when the commercial pro fiction was the only real game. 

Being a dependent gave you a certain freedom and a certain stability.  In the old days, now and then you might do a project for love – One for the Morning Glory was one such for me, and there were some other “Edmunds” as well – and have to beg and plead and have your agent resubmit and resubmit to the same editors, over and over, to get it into print (the noble Patrick Nielsen Hayden bought three of my Edmunds over the years), but once you succeeded, you got at least a modest advance and it didn’t pay that much worse than any other book – the risk associated with doing a book for love, once you  had secured an Aunt Edna like position, was only that it might be a while to recoup the  time invested.  In our new, modern, self-marketing world, Aunt Edna might make her wonderful beaded necklace that takes hours and hours, and never get paid.  The rewards for guessing right are much higher but the penalty for guessing wrong is much steeper.

Too, in those long ago days, sometimes an editor or agent would do something or other to keep you alive, i.e. cut you a check before you actually did the work or prior to  the final approval that was supposed to trigger the payment.  Yes, later on it sucked to have to do work without having anything come for it, and you couldn’t abuse that privilege too much or someone would notice and make your editor stop abetting your petty fraud/float, but there wasn’t nearly as much risk of ending up with your furniture on the sidewalk and your butt at the Salvation Army as there is in our more real-capitalist real-business world of today.

And the fact is that a lot of us writers are Aunt-Edna-like not just in having been locked up and abused, but in not really wanting to take care of ourselves, look out for our own interests, or have any genuine responsibilityMike Stackpole did a moderately bitter piece about “just wanting to write” and I think he nailed a big part of it, though less sympathetically than I would. 

Many people become writers because we’re easily stressed out by human contact, and the idea of spending the rest of our lives in an attic full of books, tea, and cats (or a hunting lodge with books, guns, beer, and room for plenty of dogs), getting money dribbled to us by a mysterious source that just wants us to keep writing, seems pretty well glorious even if there’s not much meat in the gruel.  Sucking up to exploitive patrons for subsistence may be the very definition of life in the demimonde, but it’s explicable and human in a way that playing directly to a big audience – and operating a small business – is just not. 

So Aunt Edna, bless her, has a pretty bad case of PTSD, maybe a big dose of survivor guilt, and many of the mental habits of a dependent – i.e. rather than looking to please customers on the average, she tends to look to do exactly what a patron tells her to.  The thought crosses her mind all the time that if things could only go back to the way they were, when sometimes they brought her hot chocolate or a new kitty, she could be so happy, and when there’s real trouble, she really feels how much she wishes Cousin Ted would just turn up and fix everything.  She is not particularly brave and independent, and she doesn’t mentally have a band playing behind her; she’s a scared old lady doing what she has to do because events drove her out of the house (and that’s where I really disagree with Jerry; most of the independent self-pub types I know, even the very successful ones, were driven to it much more than they boldly seized the opportunity to carve out a living on the new frontier.)

Back before he became famous as the longshoreman-philosopher, during the Great Depression while he was a migratory farm worker who survived the winters in public libraries, Eric Hoffer became interested in the 49ers because of a hunch, and asked the oldest native Californians (at the time) he could find: did you know any of the people who came out during the Gold Rush?  What were they like?  Now, he was fishing for an answer he wanted, and he was the only reporter of it, but he claimed that almost every 80 or 90 year old Californian who had known some actual Gold-Rushers would say, “Actually the ‘49ers were pretty much like the Okies.”

I.e. people who had mostly lost poor existences, and went where there was at least supposed to be work and a chance.

That’s Aunt Edna, or the commercial writers of today.  And not surprisingly, we’re making massive mistakes in all directions and some of us, to mix up our gold rushes and our aunts, are going to freeze to death because we didn’t realize we were building our fire under a snow-laden tree.  Some will probably just give up and walk sadly away into teaching or managing a supermarket.  Some will hang out at would-be writer gatherings talking about who they used to be.

And some will pull it together, but the truth is, it won’t be because we are uber-fit super-writers.  We’ll have some combination of circumstantial luck (landing in the right place at the right time) and personal luck (happening to make some right guesses, or avoid some big mistakes, early on). 

So no, I root for Edna, with all my soul obviously, but I don’t think it is at all a foregone conclusion that she will turn out fine.  Making a new life while you’re still damaged from the old one is never easy, whether we’re talking about the collapse of dreams, addictions, marriages, or industries.

With regard to that, the next correspondent I’m in debt to is Charlie Petit, a writer’s-lawyer among writer’s-lawyers, known to many of us as “Charlie the Shark,”  and generally cool guy, who suggested a couple more members of the family, which also caused me to think of a couple more.  I’ve revised Charlie’s enough so that I’ve renamed them, but the inspiration, directly and indirectly, came from him.

So here’s a few more people around the house

•Uncle Larry, who is the accounting department.  He spends all his time with Grandpa the publisher, and some people think Larry is not allowed to talk to anyone else, and some that he doesn’t want to.  He’s the one who goes to the bank every month to pick up Aunt Edna’s bank statements, and then doesn’t let anyone, especially not Edna, see them.  He just tells Edna how much to write each check for, and slips envelopes of cash into some people’s pockets.  Even Grandpa sometimes seems to be afraid of him, and no one is sure that he’s actually a relative but they don’t want to make him mad.  He may or may not know where the money actually goes but it’s quite clear that what is really important to him is making sure that no one else does. 

•Cousin Brandon from California, who is some kind of distant relation of Grandpa’s; he comes out once a year or so, wearing large shades and a flat expression, tells everyone what they should be wearing, flaunts some bling, and goes home before anyone thinks to ask him about anything.  The day after he goes, the house is ringing with Aunt Edna’s pathetic shrieks because she can’t find some of her mother’s jewelry, Cousin Ted is trying to calm down Aunt Tilly because she just bought six tons of organic rice and now Brandon won’t be here to eat it, and Grandpa is asking everyone if they’d like to move to California. 

•Sylvester, Aunt Edna’s beloved cat, and the representation of the muse.  Aunt Edna’s great secret: every now and then, Sylvester talks, and when he does, it’s a great, make-your-year kind of idea.  Mostly he sleeps and tries to look important, while Edna tries to get him to eat and changes his box over and over (in the forlorn hope that this time he won’t go on the floor).  No one but Edna believes that Sylvester talks (although Cousin Ted tries to humor her about it).  Whenever she’s really desperate and miserable, Aunt Edna quietly asks Sylvester to come up with something.  Once in a very great while he deigns to do so; mostly he leaves her standing there saying “Good kitty, tell me what to do,” pretending to be asleep, while all the cousins mock her.

And that’s pretty much a wrap for this follow-on.  For those of you just joining in the last couple of days (and a big shout out to Dean Wesley Smith who appears to have started that ball rolling), this is the blog where I talk about a little bit of everything.  Next things up are probably a link to a never-before-published story (and some thoughts about its never-before-publishability and what makes science fiction identifiable), a Christmas piece that I’ve been working on for a couple of days, and something or other about global warming/climate change (as the author of Mother of Storms and an inhabitant of this planet I feel like I should say something).  In the somewhat more distant future, I’ll be doing some blog-based projects on data massage (how to get results out of crummy data, not how to rub Brent Spiner); book doctoring; maybe something about the semiotics of the sales process; and other stuff, and those projects/blogs will be announced here first.   Thanks for coming by and I hope you’ll be by again!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry Merchants, May Ye Make the Yuletide Pay ...

“Christmas affords us all an occasion, each year, to reflect on what we most seriously, truly, and deeply believe in.  I refer of course to money.”  -- Tom Lehrer

A reminder to procrastinating holiday shoppers:

I ship collectibles (signed/personalized 1st editions) Priority Mail,which runs a bit slow this time of year (5 business days or so within the US). Those of you who have not gotten orders in at my ebay backlist store and are hoping to get them and wrap them for Christmas should put in your order at the backlist store by  Saturday afternoon at latest.  If you want a personalization – “To Binky, with happy thoughts about gophers” or whatever – you can save a bit of time by telling me that in the note with your order (if you don't say you do, I always send an email to see if you do, and then wait till the next day to ship to give you time to respond). 

This moment of dabbling in grubby trade brought to you by Scrooge, Marley, Grinch, and Mammon; see us for all your holiday exploitation needs.  Widows chucked into the snow at reasonable rates; ask about our bulk specials on orphans!   

Back to ideas and stuff real soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The publishing perplex as found in the secret diary of Aunt Edna

In communication, I have often found that analogies, metaphors, similes do more harm than good to understanding, but I’m as addicted to them as any other writer or teacher. Once, while guesting into a creative writing class, I quoted Raymond Chandler about there being only two occupations in which it is useful to know how to rob a bank, and one of them is writing; the instructor discovered afterwards that many students were offended because they thought I meant that they were such bad writers that they would never be able to make a living except by crime. Teaching lighting design, I used the familiar comparison that amperage is like volume and voltage is like pressure, only to have a student on an exam explain that we always tied cables up so the electricity would run downhill to the instruments and not puddle in the cable.

Some of the most useful plotting wisdom I ever acquired was from Barthes’s comparison between narrative and striptease. I was bouncing in a strip club at the time, a job I had gotten because I was dating one of the dancers (I hasten to add I didn’t meet her there), and oddly enough, the job was dull—unhappy middle-aged men don’t really want to fight anyone over the attention of a 22-year-old alcoholic, they just want everyone to think they would, so the bouncer’s job is to give them an excuse to back down before any actual punching happens. And like anything else, a few hours of a show you’ve seen before will usually cure your taste for it. The boredom left me far too much time to think about my grad seminars. (It probably indicates something or other that, though the grad seminars were also sometimes dull, while attending them, I rarely thought about the strip club.)  But although Barthes’s striptease analogy beautifully explains the contradictions and complications of plot, and many subtle and interesting issues about the interaction between plot and reader interest, I will probably not use the stripping analogy in an academic classroom, since it’s apt to make people uncomfortable, someone is bound to miss the point, and things tend to get reported in distorted form. I’ll just tell them all to rob banks and let it go at that.

Anyway, all this was brought to mind by the recent uproars about intemperate terminology and language in the current arguments about whether traditional/legacy publishing is crashing or not (I think it will crash much more than it has but not go extinct, and something much more resilient will re-grow from the stump) and whether the new model of self-publication via the net is going to partly or completely supplant it (my vote is for partly, with several other pathways coming on line at about the same time). Quite a few metaphors and analogies are being slung, many in anger and/or sarcasm, and many “you don’t really mean that” pats on the head are being administered to further in enrage the pat-receivers, and the biggest thing that’s being revealed is just how much anger, anxiety, and misery has been hanging around on the underside of publishing for years, and is now coming out as the world changes under us all.

So in a burst of complete folly, I thought I’d add more metaphors and analogies to the pool. Trying to maintain a Musashi-like Mind of the Strategist, I’m more interested in the way that fear and anger and old grudges distort my thinking than I am in expressing them, mostly so I can try to live up to the (possibly not actually anything he ever said) wisdom of Hemingway: “"While I'm writing, I'm an artiste; as soon as I've finished, I'm a son-of-a-bitch."  A son-of-a-bitch, of course, is what the other side calls you if you’ve truly attained the Mind of the Strategist, especially if they are trying to fling horseshit on you in the guise of roses, and you have flung it back.

So my analogy for traditional publishing is to a situation where no one will tell anyone the truth even when they both already know it, horrible hateful things are regularly done between people who say they love each other, and while a better state of affairs can be imagined, it’s kind of hard to see how it can get there. I refer, of course, to the sort of family values that occur with large, inbred, enmeshed families.

Traditional publishing has long been like a gigantic wealthy family with Crazy Aunt Edna, who actually owns everything, locked in the attic, where everyone is dedicated to pretending this isn’t true, sucking up to Edna, and keeping her from finding out that she could boot the lot of them.

•Aunt Edna, of course, is the writer. Somehow or other she got hold of the basic source of the family’s wealth, and this is manifestly hard on everyone except Edna (and doesn’t always do her very much good either). She is flighty, irresponsible, impossible, cranky, and has far too many opinions on far too many subjects. She rotates between several dysfunctional states of being: charming in a very manipulative, sucking-up kind of way; inexcusably rude and arrogant; desperately frightened and begging to be saved from dangers real and imaginary; pathetically needy; and a host of other crazed states, a few of them all right and even pleasant, most of them shudder-worthy. The only way the whole family works is if Edna behaves long enough to give them access to the family fortune every month, so that the bills get paid, and everyone lives with the uncomfortable fact that Edna is there, must be kept happy, and mustn’t get her way. If Edna really understands what is going on in the rest of the household, her behavior becomes impossible, but if she is kept in ignorance, then her demands become impossible.

•Cousin Bart is the side that faces the consumer—marketing, sales, and so forth. Bart dresses well and has read every self-help book there is. He describes himself as an entrepreneur, taking care of and expanding the family fortune. Actually he is spending it on office furniture, nice suits for himself, and talking to financial advisors. He puts a great deal of effort into telling everyone what to do because, after all, he is the one with the office and the appointments. In rare cases Bart may actually know something about where Edna’s money comes from and do something to make more of it come in; most of the time, Bart is a stuffed shirt, pronouncing from his Italian leather office swivel chairs and mahogany desks, blissfully secure because any guy with a desk and a chair like this must be right, especially because he knows that hundreds of pieces of paper pass through his inbox daily, and he is constantly busy.

•Cousin Amanda, the library/schools/teaching  side, is a just-home-from-college young idealist who feels guilty about poor old Edna and just wants to introduce the world to what a swell old gal she actually is, and doesn’t really want to talk about that nasty money thing at all, except, you know, there are so many worthwhile things that could be done with it. She talks more than everyone else put together and everyone always pretends to agree with her, and keeps money away from her so she won’t waste it.

•Aunt Tillie is production. She sleeps on a couch downstairs and people yell at her all the time, and she has nothing of her own, but she is busting her ass in the kitchen feeding everyone, and also cleans the bathrooms and makes the beds and probably mows the lawn, paints the porch, and cleans the gutters. She is burning with resentment of the discrepancy between how little she is given and how necessary she is. She is also perpetually anxious because although the household will fail if she stops doing what she’s doing or screws it up, success is totally out of her hands and caused by forces she is only vaguely aware of (not that anyone tells her anything. She would never expect that). She probably didn’t start out passive-aggressive but if she hasn’t become so, she’s a saint and a martyr—and is angry because you’re not aware enough of her saintly martyrdom.

•The editorial department is Cousin Ted, who is always so good at soothing Edna down when she throws tantrums and threatens to cut people off, or wants to see her bank statement, or thinks she wants something different for dinner, or mad because her sheets haven’t been washed in years, or is asking what all these charges are on Bart’s expense account, or just wants to use her money for her own purposes. Cousin Ted spends a great deal of time making sure Edna is confused and afraid of the world outside, and appreciative of all the nice meals that Tillie fixes and convinced that she couldn’t possibly understand all those hard things that all the cousins do. When necessary, Ted spikes the dear old girl’s tea with a hefty shot of gin, arranges for a gigolo to romance her, or dresses up as prowler and comes into her room at night to threaten her life. Ted is miserable because he genuinely likes Edna, he started doing all this because Edna was his favorite aunt, and he’s generally too smart not to see that his work as an Edna-handler is degrading to both of them. Now and then he tries to talk Edna into being reasonable, and she screams at him; now and then he asks someone else to do something for Edna, and they tell him to slap her around till she stops asking. On the rare occasions when Edna behaves and the rest of the family is getting what they want, Ted feels so brilliant; all the rest of the time, Ted blames himself for not having everything work all the time. The whole setup would fall apart without Ted, so he spends a great deal of his time trying to believe that having it fall apart would be a bad thing.

•Aunt Mavis is the art director and all the people who have anything to do with the cover and the book design (except the actual artist and designer. That’s Uncle Herman. He’s the set of vacant eyes staring over the hands clutching at the bars on the cellar window around back; late at night you may hear him moaning like a dying seal, between thuds, because Mavis is beating him to make him clean the toilet with his eating spoon, but no one admits they hear it). Mavis is the aunt who is always right, the one that you are afraid will come to your wedding, but not as much as you’re afraid she’ll help you plan it; she spends a great deal of time figuring out what Tillie should cook, what Ted should tell Edna to wear, and how Bart should arrange his chairs. (Every now and then Bart throws a tantrum back at her and she sulks). She’s the one for whom the turkey is too dry at Thanksgiving and the tree is crooked at Christmas, but also the one who makes sure all the sidewalks are edged and the trim is painted, and every so often she makes a wall or window or a whole room of the old house just shine with beauty (or rather, Herman does). You would want her to go over the house just before you sold it. And then leave before the prospective buyer comes in.

•Grandpa, finally, is the actual publisher, or management. He wants only two things: everything to be quiet, and Edna’s money. Everyone is terrified of him, and the thing that terrifies them most is that he might butt heads with Edna, so they will do anything to keep him quiet. Generally he has no opinions but if forced to have one, it often involves terrifying or brutalizing a large part of the family. He can do this because he is the only one who knows he’s really living in an analogy, and that if he has to, he can find another crazy, dependent, frightened rich lady to be Aunt Edna. He’s the only one who remembers that the last twenty Ednas are buried down by the tool shed, and that if this one has to be taken away, he can call the Edna Today Delivery Service and they’ll bring over a fresh one.

Now, what’s been happening lately is this: Dr. Selfpub has been giving Aunt Edna independence pills. They don’t fix everything but they do stabilize her enough so she can live on her own—maybe—and take care of herself—somewhat. The maybe and the somewhat reflect the fact that there’s a lot of damage to undo, and not everyone can, and also that just being mentally stable doesn’t mean being able to support yourself and manage your daily affairs.

So in some cases Edna has moved out of the mansion and taken a little apartment downtown, and is now trying to run her own affairs. She may have to hire someone like Tillie to be the maid and cook, she might need someone to do all the stuff Bart and Mavis were pretending to do, and most of all, she misses Ted, who used to fix problems. There is an excellent chance that she is making a god-damned mess of the entire thing. But she’s on her own, and this is leading to all sorts of tension and anxiety for Edna, who has stepped into a wider world and is scared that she has made a mistake, resentful of all the things that used to happen to her in the Big House, and anxious about what may come up next.

But it’s not better for the family; used to be Grandpa would bop them on the head and take them out back in the middle of the night, and there’d just be a new Edna the next morning. This Edna actually left, and the new one is asking rude questions about possibly leaving. Grandpa seems to have lost his bopping ability, and Edna is asking everyone else about things that the old Ednas never did. Ted is wondering whether he has anything to do without Edna, and is thinking of seeing if the old Edna would pay him to be her concierge. Tillie is trying to pretend she has no idea what’s going on and that she’s just going to keep working in the kitchen and cleaning the bathroom. Bart is out spreading scurrilous stories about Edna. Everyone is afraid the place will collapse, because the lady with the money moved out, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get her back.

One more analogy: and sometimes Edna is in a kind family (to her, for now, anyway), and she hears that other Ednas are just being horrible to their families, and lectures those ungrateful Ednas. Sometimes Edna is living it up in that little apartment downtown and is furious over all the wasted years. And everyone is avoiding speaking of how terrifying it all is.

I think I’ll have some extra gin in my next cup of tea.

Can't get enough of Aunt Edna?  Sequels here and here.