Monday, December 29, 2014

A silly game with just maybe an implication or two ...

I really do hate the idea of "high concept" and "elevator pitch" and all the other ways of saying "your book idea should be so reduced that no one needs to read the book, because we want people to buy books, not read them."

So as it happened I discovered that Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post, on her Twitter timeline (@petridishes) has invented a game that satirizes all that beautifully, under the self-explanatory hashtag #BooksInFourWords.

I was also appalled to find out how fast I could come up with them, and then it occurred to me that since they're sort of semicryptic, they might make a good guessing game.  So see how many of these you recognize from the four-word version (these are just the ones I thought of right away):
  1. Working class porking class
  2. Bad ring, long walk
  3.  Farmboy pirate snags princess
  4.  Gloria should return coat.
  5. No rabbits for Lenny 
  6. Jim gets boats wrong 
  7. Nobody groks Martian sex 
  8. One leg, one whale
  9. Nouveau riche? No Daisy.
  10. Picking fruit sucks too

    Highlight the answers below for any you didn't get. Mostly these are books I just thought of right away, not any special qualities for them other than familiarity.

    1. Lady Chatterley's Lover
    2. The Lord of the Rings
    3. The Princess Bride
    4. Heart of Darkness
    5. BUtterfield-8
    6. Of Mice and Men
    7. Lord Jim
    8. Stranger in a Strangel Land
    9. Moby-Dick
    10. The Great Gatsby
    11. The Grapes of Wrath

    Anyway, what this little game reallydemonstrates, as if anyone needed a demonstration, is that in four words, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose all the actual  meaning and everything worthwhile in the book. 

    Just like you do in a marketing slogan, or a "concept", or an elevator pitch.

    And that, my friends, is why books should not be sold like movies. In fact, if movies were not sold like movies, it might be worth going to the movies again. 

    And I hasten to add I do go to movies. Mostly to movies that aren't sold very aggressively, or where I don't know what's in the movie after I hear the pitch or see the trailer. But still, movies, books, plays ... if you can tell me what it's about and what happens in four words, or thirty seconds, or the time it takes to catch an elevator to another floor ... and tell me accurately and not obviously miss most of it .... what's the point in reading/writing/making/seeing it?

    If you felt like drifting on over to Twitter and tweeting more #BooksInFourWords, that might be fun, or not. After all, the whole point is to lose the point, somehow, in just four words.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In Which I Shamelessly Copy and Extend Upon a Really Good Idea

The good folk at Open Road Media , of whom I've often spoken because they are rescuing literally hundreds of thousands of books from the backlists of thousands of writers*, have come up with another clever promotion: dropping the price on the first book in various series. In this case they're dropping the price on Patton's Spaceship, the first book in my old Timeline Wars series, of which I've said a few things recently.

So for those who like series and prefer to start them off cheaply, especially those who want Books To Put Hair On Your Chest, till January 8, 2015, Open Road is making getting into the Timeline Wars cheap. The buy button on their page for it has links to most of the major online ebook sellers.

The more I looked at that idea, the better I liked it. It occurred to me that I have launched six series in my much-checkered career, plus something I shall merrily call an un-series, and discounts for exploring them seem like a fine idea, especially at holiday time when so many people buy signed backlist books as gifts.** Quite by accident, I'm already doing that to some extent because I found a batch of excellent-condition Orbital Resonances, which allows me to do a signed-hardcover-firsts sale for the Century Next Door series (the one that Amazon keeps renaming Meme Wars) which you can find details about in my backlist catalog (scroll down to the Temporary offers).

But there are other ways to get into series than the most expensive/collectible, and other series to be gotten into, so here's a quick list of deals I'm able to offer (I'd do one or two for every series but, alas, so many of you nice people buy books from me that most series of my books are now missing a book or two).

Type of books
Special price till Jan 8 (for excellent condition)
Century Next Door (Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, The Sky So Big and Black)
Signed 1st edition hardcovers
$64.25 ($10 off single copy prices)
Giraut Leones
(A Million Open Doors, Earth Made of Glass, The Merchants of Souls,  The Armies of Memory)
ARCs (advanced reading copies -- the things the publisher sends out before publication to reviewers.) I only have enough to do one set. Now you too can experience the cardstock covers and uncorrected typos and have the very-first-reader experience by pretending the books have not been out for years! Slightly more seriously, these would be highly collectible, especially since there's only one set, and it's probably a collector who will grab this up.
$45.00 ($34.00 off the single copy total price)
Jak Jinnaka, the origin trilogy (The Duke of Uranium, A Princess of the Aerie, In the Hall of the Martian King)
Mass market paperback first editions,  signed, dated, and personalized at no extra charge.
$20.00 ($5.50 off total single copy price)

Daybreak origin Trilogy (Directive 51, Daybreak Zero, The Last President)
Plain old mass market paperbacks to just read (but signed, dated, and personalized at no extra charge).
$17.50 ($5.00 off total single copy price)

If you are interested, drop me a note and we'll figure out shipping, personalization, and all those other details.


*most importantly including mine! Though upon looking at that page I do notice that my habit of using my actor headshots for author photos can have its drawbacks: I must've been auditioning for Lenny in Of Mice and Men that day.

**You didn't know people did that? Oh, my. Better do a lot of it so people won't realize you didn't know! You don't want to be the last one on the block!

Friday, December 5, 2014

In which other things lurch out of the past

TL;DR for this one: Forty-eight almost-like new (not yet certain about condition of all of them) hardcover first editions of Orbital Resonance (first pubbed in December 1991) have just emerged from storage, to my deep surprise. So I can offer a few dozen fans a chance at a really good condition signed first edition of one of my most popular novels. Go to catalog page (on right) for details.


This year I'm resuming the backlist signed editions business in earnest, which is why I've posted a catalog as a page off to the side of this blog (see listed pages at right, or I think below if you're reading this on mobile).

In December 2012 I was walled in finishing The Last President and in December 2013 I had a truly massive load of teaching, exam-giving, and grading to do, so for the two most recent Christmases,  I just couldn't handle the order taking, signing, packing, and shipping.  Therefore I let the business dwindle to only longtime customers (and people wise enough to subscribe to the newsletter ).

Newsletter, did I hear you say? Well, there was just a new edition of that, and if you didn't get it it's because you are not on the subscription list.  If you just tell me that you want to subscribe (use the email link at right, the same one people use to complain about my not maintaining a comments section) and I shall dispatch the newsletter to you forthwith.  Each newsletter contains some sales stuff and special offers, whatever publishing news about me there may be,  and an essay never to be published anywhere else.  (I think of it as successively flogging the product, the career, and my favorite dead horses).

The newsletter is free, very easy to unsubscribe from,  and will arrive whenever a combination of news and time permits, which is to say that the schedule is irregular beyond belief.  But if you think getting email from me now and then would be interesting, as opposed to "disturbing unfortunate electrons for no good reason," drop me a note, I'll send you the latest one, and you'll get the others whenever they come out from then on.

Now, back to the archeological find .... it came from the mists of time and an obscure warehouse near the Port of Los Angeles .... the first book of mine that ever got much attention beyond a few warm reviews and just enough sales to convince the publishers that my mother couldn't be all of them was Orbital Resonance, which is still the favorite Barnes sf novel of a largish fraction of Barnes fans. (Note: that's a largish fraction of a smallish absolute number). 

My agent at the time, Ashley Grayson, put a lot of effort into the book. He thought it was remaindered too early (because Tor somewhat hurried it into paperback even though it was a Nebula finalist -- in those long ago days, publishers were supposed to wait because if it won, there'd be a few months of elevated hardcover sales. Sigh. Those were the days, my friends...) So he bought up some copies in the pre-remainder sales, in hopes that a first edition might be worth some extra money some day.

Well, that's not quite how it turned out; it didn't win. But it did hold a special place in some people's hearts (in various guises as the last time Barnes wasn't a complete pervert, that Barnes book where the most violent act is a punch in the nose, the book Barnes did for people who like teenage girls with funny names, etc.) and Ashley was able to unload large numbers of first edition hardcovers.

More recently, as he's been clearing out his own storage, he's been sending me agent copies of my books, and in this case he hit a sort of jackpot: not only 48 copies of Orbital Resonance, but they were still all packed on 4 minipallets (that's a sheet of heavy cardboard with a pile of 12 books on it shrinkwrapped, and it preserves books beautifully), still in original boxes.

There are not going to be any more first editions in as good condition as these; a really good condition first edition of a 23-year-old book does not come along often. 

THEREFORE ... if you have any interest, now is the time to hasten over to the catalogue page (again, just off to your right) and drop me a note ordering one. When they're gone, they're gone (and I never expected them to exist in the first place). 

For those of you who would like to have the whole Century Next Door set -- Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, and The Sky So Big and Black -- in first edition hardcover: Buy one Orbital Resonance 1st edn HC signed at full price, and I'll take off $3.00 from the price of any 1st edn HC of the other three in the same order.  Buy a complete set and I'll take off a total of $10.00 from the other three.

There were quite a few people who liked the Century Next Door books in their heyday; I'm going to try to come up with a blog entry about them someday soon (as in, sometime in the next very few days).

Monday, December 1, 2014

Another one from the vaults: what men's a/a was and how I happened to write some

Note: this used to appear as a short article in an online store I had, to explain my six men's a/a titles. (Men's action/adventure, as you will discover by reading on.) I closed that store -- I now do sales direct, details of which you can find in the catalog listed among the links to your right.  But this text was kind of useful for explaining those books, and besides, in a recent edition of the newsletter I'm referring to a page that used to link to this description, so .... here you are. For those of you who have bought books from me online, it may all be a rerun; for those who didn't, and have always wondered where all the manly books went, well, here's where.

What Men's A/A was

Sometimes genres vanish all but totally, leaving behind a few books, series, or authors; at various times Westerns, some kinds of horror, and some kinds of detective novels have done that for periods of decades.  Sometimes they vanish so completely that it's hard to imagine their ever reviving:  Gothic romances, nurse novels, or men's action/adventure. 

Somewhere in Daybreak Zero, by the way, I embedded the passing prediction that the chick-fic of today would be one such vanishing or generational genre, and that by the 2020s would be conventionalized the way English manor house murder mysteries ("Lord Blithering-Twit is dead on the priceless Tea-Carpet, a bloody mashie-niblick in hand!") or 1940s LA-noir hardboileds ("she was trouble in the shape of a dame, but I needed an income in the shape of cash, so I put the .45 in my pocket and the Packard in gear") are.

Anyway,  men's action/adventure flourished from the 1950s through the early 80s, and has disappeared except for a vestige in the Mack Bolan books and maybe the Deathlands series (heavily interbred there with postapocalyptic).  One of the main publishers for many years was the Gold Eagle division of Harlequin, and I did two men's a/a series launches for them during the years when they still thought they might be able to revive the genre.

Fundamentally, a men's a/a novel involves a hero who beats the absolute living snot out of a bunch of bad guys, preferably lots of them, until they are all gone,  which makes the world better till the next book.  It was widely believed in the industry that the readers were mostly blue-collar men in their thirties and forties, in some job that bored them and gave them time to read; the guy behind the counter at the auto-parts store or the plumbing dispatcher.  

Based on my fan mail, which is of course not representative at all, the readership was mostly high school boys who really wanted to leave home and join the Army, servicemen stuck on remote bases, and urban guys with dull jobs who took the bus to work.  Interestingly, too, the editors generally made a point of telling me that these guys just wanted stuff to blow up, daring escapes, and some not-very-repressed sadism, but the mail I got from readers of Dan Samson (which was marketed as men's a/a) actually talked very little about the violence, but quite a lot about the character of Samson, his moral dilemmas, and various points of history (more about facts than theory).  It is my guess that the thing that may have killed the genre was the dumbing down brought on by editorial contempt for the audience.

The basic plot of  a men's a/a is that one way or another the hero, who is highly competent with weapons and has unshakeable self-confidence, is quickly thrown into a situation where the bad guys are trying to kill him and he's mostly on his own.  He then fights his way through escalating battles till he confronts and beats the main bad guy for the book.  On the way through he acquires friends, sidekicks, and lovers, most of whom pass out of his life at the end, either because he does the equivalent of riding off into the sunset or  because in some earlier chapter they were  messily slaughtered to motivate him. 

All that was required was that super-simple ping-pong plot (bad pings, good pongs, bad pings harder, eventually on a desperation falling-over shot good pongs so hard it wins the game), which a lot of people could write, and quite a few writers learned craft turning out men's a/a, because if you wanted to put anything else in there, they didn't care as long as it still went ping-pong-ping-pong-ping-pong-PING-PONG and so on.  You could pretty much put in anything else you liked – anti-imperialist politics, New Age reincarnationism,  historical curiosities (as I did with Dan Samson); keen-o sci fi gadgets, a Marxist vision that capitalism is a temporary historical aberration, literary history, PTSD issues (as I did with Mark Strang).  And in fairness, nobody really said not to do that; it was just that the stock advice from every corner was "just have enough stuff blow up and be sure your guy is manly.")

Anyway, such were the glories of men's a/a, where I had a great deal of fun and made some survival money.  As it turned out, the first series launch (Dan Samson) was dead before publishing; they just ran out the copies to make some of the money spent on it back, because new management had already decided they didn't like the idea of launching new cross-genre men's a/a; and the second one (Mark Strang) not only suffered a similar fate, but went it one worse:  they decided not to print them and just write the money off.  Those books ended up at another publisher, and not published as men's a/a, mildly baffling some of the science fiction fans who picked them up.

A few astute readers with good memories will say "Isn't there a character named Dan Samson in the Daybreak books?"

Uh, well, yeah, there is. He even fits the physical description of the Dan Samson in the Timeraiders. 

And very conveniently, he could have been born right at the moment that that Dan Samson was killed in book 1 (it's a rule in the Timeraider universe: you are reincarnated at the moment of your death).  And since the new Dan Samson might very well be carrying out the cosmic mission of the old one, in a new life that leads into Daybreak .... when I realized what I'd done in the first draft, I laughed, shrugged, and left his name the same in the rest of the drafts. If any crazed fan ever starts to evolve a theory of how the whole Barnesiverse ties together, at least they'll have something to work with.

Would I ever write men's a/a  again?  I really don't know; probably if the money was good, and even more likely if I thought the marketing was being researched and handled well.  I really liked the Dan Samson audience and wouldn't mind working for them again.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Potlucks and LIFO, being too disgusting for a bully to touch, divas with PTA mothers, and making widgets: why sometimes you should just get drunk with Mr. Evil

Usually I like to do the seven things weave for blog posts, but this time I just had four in mind:
1. I've decided to blow off my church's Thanksgiving potluck this year due mainly to laziness (the first chance to sleep without setting an alarm in a while, and the awareness that it's the last time I can do that till Christmas because I have choir rehearsals and performances to make).  Interestingly to me, the moment I decided to do that I felt a pang of relief: my pet pot luck irritation would not be happening to me or various other people this year.  To wit:

At the end of every pot luck, it will be discovered that half a dozen lovely homemade desserts, relish trays, salads, and breads were never offered to anyone, and instead people ate various storebought stuff.  The fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls are still under the aluminum foil in their lovingly packed pan; the crowd ate Poppin'Fresh. The grandma's-recipe pecan pie is uncut but its pie server is soaking in the dirty dishes, having been commandeered to cut Safeway brownies. The artfully arranged hand cut vegetable tray with homemade dip is in the refrigerator, untouched; the people ate handfuls of that culinary fraud, "baby carrots", from a crackly plastic tub, dipping them in Kraft Ranch dressing straight from the bottle.

How this happens is that the people who make good things at home tend to arrive early to set them out.  The people who remember on their way to the church that there's a potluck stop at the store and buy a bag of Oreos, or a readywashed salad or plastic relish tray.  They typically arrive at the last minute, when the homemade stuff is already set out, and as they run down to the potluck table, they find all the space taken up with the good homemade stuff. So they move that "out of the way" and set down their bag of storebought crap. (Sometimes appropriating serving implements, since they didn't bring those).

Note that nobody -- probably not even the last minute token Oreo bringers -- wants to eat the last minute stuff from the store when the good homemade stuff is available.  In fact, the reason why the Oreos and presliced veggie trays and so forth win out is that they were brought by people with less interest in the process, and the serving table is a LIFO (Last in first out, for you nontechnical types) system.  So for the sides, everybody eats that stuff they could have bought on the way home (usually the main dishes are safely immune), and the proud cooks go away with their work unsampled.

2. As a fifth and sixth grader, I had one particular bully-tormentor who was a year older than me and one of the most popular boys in his class, one of those socially precocious boys who is first to have a girlfriend, first to come to a dance drunk, a star athlete in seventh grade because he's hit puberty already and it was nice to him, that sort.  The leader of the popular boys' lunch table.   

About the middle of sixth grade I realized that in those days, schoolyard fights were essentially a very rough sport, more like bullfighting than boxing -- i.e. the bull gets goaded into attacking and then beaten and humiliated.  So I meekly endured teasing and having my nipples pinched (don't ask me why this guy was so fond of pinching male nipples, but he had a kind of route of a half dozen victims) for about a week while I planned, and then one day rode my bicycle into a crowd of him & friends, jumped off and threw it forward, thus tangling his legs. 

While he was tangled, I grabbed his hair and pulled his face into several thoroughly inept punches that were nonetheless probably at least a bit painful, and before he was together enough to retaliate, the nice old lady who lived in the house, who was sitting out on her porch, came along and sternly ordered me to go away.  I rode off, unretaliated against.

The next day I sneaked up behind him and hit him in the back of the head with a stick, while he was on his way home from school, and then ran like hell.

He confronted me on the school playground and I told him that he could hit me all he wanted (or as much as he could before a teacher was forced to notice him doing it) and I wouldn't try to defend myself, but he'd never be able to watch his back all the time. He shoved me down and got sent in early from recess. After lunch, walking by his classroom where the teacher hadn't come back yet, in full view of the room mother, I stepped into the room and hit him fairly hard in the head with my math book.  I got to go home from school early.

I wasn't sure how long I could keep this up, figuring sooner or later he'd catch me in what my childhood defined as a "fair fight," and I'd really take a pounding.  But while I was in the public library reading later that week, he came over and sat down next to me and said, "Everyone is saying you're beating me up and getting away with it."

I pointed out that I was hitting him from behind, using weapons, no warning, taking cover behind adults, all the things that destroyed ones honor. He said he was telling people that but they were still saying that I was hurting him and that he was afraid of me. He admitted he was only walking home with friends from school nowadays.  (I"d have used that strategy myself if all my friends hadn't been the same kind of bully bait I was). He got pretty close to saying he was afraid of what I might do, and he was humiliated by the teasing he was getting.

I offered to lose one fight to him in public, once, in exchange for his leaving me alone forever.

He was outraged.  "You would THROW A FIGHT!  You would JUST LOSE IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY!  You DON'T EVEN CARE!"

And he got up, left, never spoke to me again as far as I remember, and never bothered me. Apparently I was just too disgusting.

I employed similar strategies on two other bullies, with equally good results, though that was the only time I offered to throw a fight.  The only other verbal exchange that might have been relevant was that when I had ambushed one young goon and had him pinned down, and was alternately slapping his head and rubbing his face on the street, he said "I give up," and I said, no, he didn't. If I couldn't get out of fighting him by just giving up, then he couldn't get out of this by just giving up. Then he said nobody would believe I had done this, and I said he could explain his scratched up face any way he wanted, since he and I both knew. I let him get up eventually -- he was crying pretty hard -- and he asked me if I wanted him to apologize, or stop beating me up, or quit hassling me. I said I didn't care what he did, now, because I could always do this again.

Being a not very nice kid, I enjoyed the fact that he was quietly afraid of me for about a year after, giving me nervous little glances and drifting out of the crowd whenever his friends decided to make fun of me.
3. If you have no musical theatre interest, it's possible you've never heard "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line.  Go listen to it now, I'll wait, and you obviously have time if you read this blog.  Now, what you're hearing there is a pretty good reflection of a very large number of kids' lives. If there's not much for you at home, sports programs, or some art activities like band or theatre or choir, can give you a full-on life, or so it feels at the time. Sadly, though … comes time for the big musical, the big game, the big concert … and all of a sudden, some kid who misses half of practices, dogs it on all the laps, never even showed up to help run the Thespian concession stand, has the big part or is starting in the position you wanted.  And they might be pretty good but not nearly as good as you are. 

What the hell happened?

It wasn't until I was working in kid programs myself that I came to realize that the kid from the happy, supportive family -- especially the very achievement-oriented one -- has a parent who may well be essential to the operation.  Sure, Alice May Theatrebit works hard and she's there all the time, and you give her a good role, but Bethany Familyvalues's mother is president of the PTA, and coordinates parent volunteer efforts, and in short can keep your program going.  Neither Alice's indifferent parents nor Bethany's ever have to ask or exert any pressure; it's just, one kid will be there and work her heart out for you no matter what, and the other one will do a reasonably good job if you hand it to her, but if you don't hand it to her, she may lose interest and quit and there goes your painfully built program.

4. I mostly don't fall for it anymore, I hope (or it's done more subtly on me nowadays) but I have seen many students from middle school on up who make no effort till very late, then walk in and ask what they can do to pass, then don't do whatever they're told it is and try to bargain down, and continue the cycle of begging, agreeing, not complying, and re-begging until time runs out and the instructor has agreed to give them everything in exchange for no work.  Perhaps you've seen someone do that in a class or two, too? It seems to be a pretty common experience.


Now, what do those all have to do with each other? I think this: there is great power in not giving a shit. Rewards often go to those who don't care about them exactly because they don't care about them.  The one who can walk away from the bargaining table will get the best deal; the most reluctant get the biggest bribes; fortune favors the less prepared one who shows up at the last minute, because they will get all the help to keep them participating.

Obviously not in all cases and not in all fields of endeavor.

One place where it may be less obvious is our economy.  Let us suppose you work at Allied Widget as a widget-maker, perhaps a highly experienced and skilled widget-maker with forty years of widget-making behind you. You can't lose that job.  Widgets are your life. If the company is in trouble, you'll be on your union leaders' case to make concessions to keep it open.  You'll be going to the boss and asking what you can do to help.  You need Allied to be there because it's your whole life.

Now suppose you're an investor and Allied's stock is tubing, probably due to all the news in the previous paragraph.  You may very well decide to buy more Allied -- because to keep you, and thus preserve their stock price, they'll have to think about declaring a dividend. Two days ago you didn't know they existed, but you bought them on the off chance that they will pay to keep you, and if they don't, you can dump them just as easily.

So who gets the best deal, you the worker or you the investor?

Suppose you pour your heart and soul into a fifty-year crusade to create something marvelous for all of humanity, or to right an injustice as old as history.  And suppose the final key law to achieve your goal now comes down to one legislator's decision, with the rest of the legislature tied. Does your legislator go with you, the passionate advocate? Or with Mr. Evil, the passionate anti-advocate? Or does the legislator figure that he'll get a vote from one or the other of you, but not both, but he'll get thousands or millions from voter/taxpayers who have barely heard of the issue?

Maybe you and Mr. Evil can go out and get drunk together afterwards.

I offer no fixes or proposals here; I see no way you can measure intensity directly, and after all, very often, as Yeats said, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. I merely observe that it can be a tough world in which to be a good cook, a bully, a kid for whom the ballet "wasn't paradise but it was home," a regular student who does his/her homework, a worker or an advocate.  Or I suppose anything. But it does seem like a very interesting way in which it sucks to care.

A momentary impulse seized me ... or it will ... or it did

I was looking at Book Riot and ran across this video from books and pieces, which I'm linking to on YouTube.  Partly I was just interested in the flapping hands and the strange urgency with which she speaks -- she seems to be really afraid we'll all get bored or tell her to shut up or something, when in fact she's a good deal more interesting than most of the people you can find browsing the net and nearly all of the people you can find hanging out in the coffee house. 

The question was about the attraction of the 30-80 year -- or really, the 50 year -- future.  Why is so much SF set at about that distance in time?

She mentions most of the usual explanations: fifty years is about the right time frame to be comprehensible but still strange enough.  It's far enough away so that there is more than one likely alternative, close enough so there are not an infinite number of incomprehensible ones. It's an artifact of the limits of writerly imagination.  All that sort of thing.

Let me throw out one she didn't say that seems likeliest to me, and maybe that's just because I'm an increasingly old poop who spends more and more time these days working around young people. (I highly recommend that combination, by the way. You get to be near all that energy and interest and excitement but you're not obligated to have zits, cliques, or obsessions).

Science fiction, if we are talking about professional venues (defined as "the check would be enough to make a difference in your month or longer")  is written by youngish (usually late 20s and up) through middle-oldish (70s or so) people.  Add fifty years to their age and you get middle-oldish to dead.

But some people from our present will still be alive in fifty years, with memories of our time.  They are those short guys we call "children."  I was born in 1957; 1964 is memorable for me (though I missed a lot, too, of course), in a whole swarm of details.

Many people's idea of what the world is like is formed in childhood (and sometimes never changes, or changes only slowly); furthermore, if children are not too severely abused or neglected, and most aren't, they tend to like the world of their childhood and to think of it as normal and right.  (One of many reasons why reactionaries can find new reactionaries, I suppose). 

So, when I sit down to write about what happens in 2064, I'm imagining a world where:

1) I'm dead or close to it, and certainly out of most social circulation.
2) But kids (e.g. grandchildren) are still around (oldest grand will be sixty, an age I have no trouble imagining, and presumably 2014 will seem about as remote as 1964 now does to me).
3) And my present day existence will be remembered mainly by people seeing it in the mental golden glow of childhood.

Just to spill more amazebeans upon you: most writers love attention, and really love favorable attention, and want to be well thought of.  So when I set a story 50 years into the future, I'm picking a period when the elderly experienced characters with wisdom ("old wise guys") are people I know today, but are most apt to think I sure was swell. Or more likely awesome.  Probably sick, actually.  No matter. It is the time when I am likely to be out of accurate living memory, but still in living memory,surrounded by the glow of nostalgia.

And I'm guessing this feeling is true for a lot of writers.  Besides the video cited above, I recently had occasion to re-read Heinlein's Requiem (the story where D.D. Harriman hires a couple broken down rocket barnstormers to fly him to the moon, and dies there, leaving the RL Stevenson "home is the hunter" poem on an air tank tag as his epitaph).  Heinlein wrote it in 1940; it's set in 1990 (two years after Heinlein's actual death -- you don't get much more precise than this, do you?) 

So when Harriman tries to explain to these two spacemen why he wants to see the plain old moon even if it will kill him, he falls back on telling them about his childhood, and talks about being an 8-15 year old kid who lived and breathed ... science fiction magazines. Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Boy's Own Electrical Experimenter, all that pop science stuff that was all over the newsstand in the 20s and 30s.

Harriman is 70-something  at the time (the doctor who won't let him fly says so).  So he was born between 1910 and 1920 ... about a decade younger than Heinlein.  A rich kid, crazy about science in the late 1920s or early 1930s ...

Three guesses who D.D. Harriman's  favorite writer was, and I'm sure you'll be right all three times (though we have no way to check). Maybe Heinlein himself, but also very likely Doc Smith, Murray Leinster, H.G. Wells -- the writers Heinlein conspicuously loved.  And if that kid had somehow known the rather dashing young naval officer that Heinlein was when Harriman would have been ten years old ... well, if that's not the warm glow of memory, what would be?

Really, it's remarkable how well SF writers resist having the children they like grow into admirable, heroic adults who then remember their creators (or the characters who are surrogates for their creators) with the same glow that Disney, Thornton Wilder, or Heinlein brushed over pre-WWI smalltown America, like Thomas Kinkade the day that the store had a special on Valium and chrome yellow.


Quick note here: I felt the urge, I wrote the piece, wanted to see how long it would take to just dash something off about an idle thought.  Might do it again or not. Those of you who like the blog, hope neither too much nor too little. Those who don't, why did you read this far?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Another one of those completely unpredictable revivals

I keep hoping to get back to regular blogging, which I've missed -- it's the equivalent of listening to myself talk, which is one of my favorite things in the world -- so I thought I'd just pay a quick visit here after all these months because there are some little bits of news, and maybe a thing or two to say.  And then I'll either disappear again for months or start showing up with long form thoughts, whichever seems to come more naturally.

So first the big news: Today was the release date for the paperback of THE LAST PRESIDENT, which you can find on Amazon, or if you're currently mad at them, on Barnes and Noble, or if you'd prefer your business to go somewhere less corporate, at Powells, or if you want to find some nice friendly obscure corner of the universe, you can always go to IndieBound.  THE LAST PRESIDENT wraps up the "origin trilogy" for my Seven Nations future that began with DIRECTIVE 51 and continued through DAYBREAK ZERO.

Those of you who have looked in on Wikipedia or a couple of other places know that one reason why THE LAST PRESIDENT was long delayed was a struggle with my publisher, and that I've said I hope someday time and space may permit me to issue a "directors cut" (i.e. a The Way It Spoze To Be Version) of the first two books, and some people have said they'd rather not start the series if things are going to change behind them as they read.  

 I've answered that question in a few different places, but never here on my own blog, so I'll explain, and then leave it up to you:

The major editorial difference between me and the otherwise reasonably pleasant people at Ace, was, in my opinion, they wanted a novelized screenplay according to present Hollywood linear-storytelling principles, and I wanted SPRAWL. Let me make that point in larger type: I love and value SPRAWL in my own reading, and in general if a story has one clear hero with one clear problem around which all the plot turns, it bores the living shit out of me.  Esthetically I'm much more in the camp of Dickens, Dumas, Steinbeck, Sabatini, etc. Or if you prefer, I'm much more a Game of Thrones kind of guy nowadays, and not much of a Dark Knight Trilogy type.

So I originally conceived and planned a sprawling epic with a large number of intersecting subplots, and one of the things I liked most about it was the idea that I would not have to have a side; I could be on many sides at once, rooting for the Daybreakers to bring down the Big System (I've got a deep Luddite streak) and for the Feds to stop them or reverse the process, letting my right wingers talk like right wingers and my leftists like leftists and the squishy Democrats in between do their squishy well-meaning things, and so on. 

And the constant feedback from the editor was:

 cut that you don't need that take that out pick a side we need a thread we can follow one line one true make it something we can summarize in a sentence with one hero one problem one issue tell us which side is right don't let him do bad things he's a good guy don't give so much sympathy to the bad guys BECAUSE HE IS ... and anyway don't explain how that works people want to read what blows up next don't tell that story about the character it doesn't lead anywhere ...

So the first two books were chopped way, way, way down,  with me trying to keep them sprawling and ambiguous and undecided and interesting, like the world, and the editor trying to narrow them down to one-hero-one-problem-on-one-side like  movies-on-the-reader's-forehead.  One way we frequently compromised was that I got to have some of the material left in but with scenes shortened, and with everything forced into a role of amplifying the Heather O'Grainne Tries To Save The Republic plot. 

It was kind of a  perpetual kicking the can down the road: well, you can work that stuff into the next book, and make it the center of that.  As long as it only has one clear center.

That all came to a head with THE LAST PRESIDENT because there were a bunch of plots I was now expected to drop altogether (since there wouldn't be room to finish them) and because Heather's story is rather a fizzle in that part of the epic; other characters have much more interesting things to do, while she mostly reflects on the huge changes in the two years while civilization collapses and something like 7.7 out of 8 billion people on the planet die.

So this led to a complete impasse because, frankly, I was tired of putting my name on a simplified-for-movie-morons version of my books, and I'd spent years vandalizing the work I liked on the promise that the books would sell well, but  the marketing in fact was de-emphasizing most of what I was interested in, and shoehorning them into categories where the audience they would go to didn't interest me as much. 

And I don't know about other writers might have done, indeed once upon a time I thought I was pretty good at "being professional" a.k.a. self-betrayal, but I found it hard to keep coming up with the energy to finish ruining an idea I had once loved.

After about a year and a half in that impasse, we struck a deal: I wrote THE LAST PRESIDENT as if the first two books had been the ones I wanted to write, and they basically cut me loose; there's no expectation that the series will continue at Ace (but in today's world, it can continue many-elsewhere'd). 

Thus, THE LAST PRESIDENT sprawls and jumps and characters who were barely left as nubbins in previous books are suddenly major, and it may dislocate a few readers with highly precise and detailed memories, but it's about the characters and situations it should be about, and it isn't on a side and most of the numbers (of plots, characters, problems, etc.) are way honking bigger than one.

As for what will go into the eventual-if-ever director's cut, well, I will probably undo, retcon, or replace very little, perhaps nothing, that is in the current published editions of DIRECTIVE 51 and of DAYBREAK ZERO. It's just that a whole lot of fun scenes, subplots, and characters that should have been there in the first place will be there, replacing the short narrative summaries or the quick reports in dialogue that were put in as placeholders. Collum Duquesne, who was a fun character in the last half of Directive 51, will actually get to appear on stage, instead of only by report later. You'll get to see how the guy that shot down the hijacked Air Force Two guides his family to survival. You'll see more of the activities of Darcage earlier, and spend more time with the Carlucci family as they adapt to life in the FBI compound in San Diego, and watch more maneuvering between Duquesne and Quattro and Harrison Castro over who's going to lead the Castle Movement, and instead of coming in in the last few chapters of THE LAST PRESIDENT, the guys who <spoiler> will have been there all along having major adventures across Asia, and well, shucks, just LOTS

The whole idea, originally, was LOTS, after all.

But you won't have to unlearn anything from the current editions. They're chopped and ground down in ways that irritate me, but they're not wrong.

Now, the reason for engineering the Seven Nations Future in such a complex way is surprisingly simple: I wanted a huge canvas for all kinds of adventures, and it took a pretty big story to set that up. I wanted to contrive a dieselpunk kind of world that would never be wiped out by computers and nukes, as was the interwar era where so many of my favorite pulp adventures took place. And now I have that world set up, even if the setting up process irritated the hell out of me and wasn't nearly the fun it should've been.

So I'm not going to go back and fix the origin trilogy anytime soon. Rather, the next books set in that background will be mostly young people having adventures in the brand new Post-Daybreak shattered world. Sometime this fall I hope to write about how Acey Carlucci makes her bones as fighter, scout, explorer, and operative by delivering her gentle, sensitive brother to college -- across 2500 miles of crazy Tribals, paranoid freeholders, and some honest-to-the-premise pirates. After that, I think it's time for Whorf and Ihor to sail on Discovery  again, but it might be something else entirely; Cassie and Pauline are well positioned for a different adventure that might be next instead.

Those next few novels will be mostly much shorter adventure stories,  and I suppose that might be more appealing for those of you with Save-the-Cat movie esthetics; I like writing short novels too, though I still think the business of a novel is to digress interestingly, even if briefly.
So it might be ten more novels in the series before I get back around to the origin trilogy. Or three, or never. And of course a cement mixer might drop off the overpass onto me and my old Kia tomorrow.*

 If any of that helped you decide whether to read now or wait, you're welcome. And if you've been following right along, well, the paperback includes all the thrills of the hardcover, cheaper, and suitable for jamming into the back pocket of your overalls.

Other news of possible interest:

•The nice people at Open Road who have been reviving much of my backlist are bringing back the three Timeline Wars books, sometime in the next few months.  Those are the adventures of Mark Strang, who travels across time blowing things up, because he's so crazy that it seems like a good idea.**

•The last convention I went to was Worldcon in Denver in 2008, somewhat under duress (my agent at the time had had to cancel coming, and insisted I take his ticket so I could take agency clients to a dinner for him).  For some reason or other I have decided to try going to a convention again; I always enjoyed the small literary convention Bubonicon, in Albuquerque, which I think of as sort of a less-pretentious Western version of Readercon. So I intend to go to that; it's in the first week of August.

•For those wondering what I'm working on at the moment, I'm closing in on finishing another mainstream YA, my first since Tales of the Madman Underground, with a working title of Grace, Basically. I'm writing it on spec because I seem to have no ability whatever to write a proposal that explains what a mainstream novel is about, except "It's about 90,000 words" in this case. Next after that will be MUTINY ON UMBRIEL'S GLORY, which returns us to the adventures of Jak Jinnaka, and which I expect to be quick (but I am a notoriously bad predictor of such things), and then the untitled-so-far next book in the Daybreak series I described above.  Also in the works, in parallel because it uses a different part of the brain: the self-explanatory SINGAPORE MATH FIGURED OUT FOR PARENTS, or "you too can understand your child's arithmetic homework again."

And I think that's more than enough for a blog post revival. Those of you who have loyally hung on watching this blog as it gathered cobwebs and dust, I have no idea whether this is a brief lurch from the grave or the start of regular blogging again; most days I can't remember what I had for breakfast and can't plan what's for dinner.


*leaving the crushed wreckage of a worn-but-serviceable cheap way to go places, inside his smashed car. 

**Right now I have no plans for the Time Raider books, which were the adventures of Dan Samson, who travels backwards in time blowing things up, because he's so dumb he can't think of anything else to do.  I often thought of fusing the two concepts into a series to be called TIME TRAVELING PSYCHOTIC MORON, but I probably won't write that one.