2015/09/30

Indie Publishing Q&A

indie publishing

We've got a big Superversive SF live stream coming up on Sunday afternoon. The topic of the day is whether we are currently living in the golden age of publishing. The answer largely depends on whether you see indie publishing's rise to dominance as a good thing or a bad thing.

The distinguished guests include L. Jagi Lamplighter-Wright, Jeff Duntemann, Joshua YoungDavid Hallquist, Ben Zwycky, and Chameleon Publishing's Amy Sterling Casil,

I'll be involved, but I expect to spend most of the show furiously taking notes from pros like Jeff, Jagi, and Amy, with perhaps an occasional Dune-related quip. By way of show prep, and in deference to the more experienced co-hosts, I've put together a ten item Q&A. The questions were submitted by the Superversive SF crew. The answers are mine (sources cited as memory permits).

1. How hard is it to be an indie author?
As hard as any job I've had. Dean Wesley Smith--who is traditionally and independently published--points out that indie authors have two jobs: author and publisher; with equally vital yet vastly different responsibilities.

As an artist, I'm responsible for producing works to a professional standard in ways that keep my readers happy. This means researching, drafting, getting feedback, revising, editing, and--as important as any item on the list--reading.

As a publisher, I bear all the responsibilities of running a small business. That means I've got to set my own deadlines, do my own marketing, and keep track of my finances. Self-publishing advocates tend to emphasize the freedom of indie--and they're right; it's nigh absolute--but the price of freedom is self-accountability. No one else is going to keep me on track, and there's no one else to blame when I screw up.

My only trad pub experience is with short story markets, which are easier to produce for but many orders of magnitude harder to break into. In terms of novels, the consensus among pros I trust seems to be that authors have to work equally at both indie and trad publishing, but with the former you get bigger royalties and keep your rights.

2. Is Trad Publishing still a viable mechanism or is it over?
If you define "trad publishing" as "the Big Five New York publishers", then trad publishing is dead. They just don't know it because they're not broke. Yet.


3. What is the right price for an eBook?
There's no hard and fast rule for this. The best price point for an eBook depends on several factors, including fiction or non-fiction, genre, market, the size and makeup of the author's readership, whether it's a standalone book or part of a series, etc.

For example, Big 5 defector turned indie pub millionaire Joe Konrath has said that his pricing sweet spot is $2.99. For godfather of self-pub Hugh Howie, the sweet spot is free. At the other end of the continuum, life coach Mike Cernovich can get away with charging $8.99 and still sell over 10,000 copies in three months.

I regularly experiment with price, and so far my sweet spot looks to be around $3.99.

4. Is the proliferation of books a bonanza for readers or a nightmare of low quality offerings no one can wade through?
This question addresses what Joe calls the "Tsunami of Crap" meme. Some worry that indie's extremely low barriers to entry will result in a flood of literary garbage that readers will find impossible to sift in their quest for entertaining books. Disgusted, they will abandon reading altogether in favor of knitting and video games.

There's little danger of this nightmare scenario coming to pass. First, contrary to dire warnings (mostly from trad pub authors), Amazon reports that readers are buying more eBooks than ever before. It's actually legacy pub that readers and writers are fleeing in droves.

Yes, there are many horribly written and designed self-published books. But even several hundred thousand lousy offerings don't significantly complicate the task of choosing between the millions of already extant books. An unintended benefit of the crap tsunami is that competently written, attractively designed eBooks stand out that much more.

5. How important is an editor?
Editors are indispensable. Here's mine.

One nonnegotiable point of agreement among trad and indie authors alike is the importance of editing. Even if you are a world spelling bee champ and crack grammarian--even if you yourself are a professional editor--your manuscript will include mistakes that, to your eyes, will be totally invisible. Only an impartial third party will be able to spot these errors since your brain will unconsciously read what you want to be there; not necessarily what is.

Luckily (and one of the reasons that this is the golden age of publishing), you don't need to forfeit all rights to your work forever and 85% of the proceeds in exchange for top notch editing services. A legion of professional freelance editors stand ready to assist you for a one-time, highly variable fee.

6. Where do readers find the good books?
Related to question 4 above. Once you consider that books are commodities just like toasters, ear buds, and mp3s, this question is really the same as asking, "how do customers find anything they want to buy?"

Increasingly, with regard to books, the answer is "not from the Big 5."

A number of tools exist to connect readers with authors whose books might strike their fancy, such as Amazon and Goodreads' ranking systems, mailing lists like BookBub, and good old-fashioned word of mouth.

7. Are writers still required to have a web presence to matter...or is word of mouth again king?
Writers must have a web presence because word of mouth is king. Joe Konrath's first principle of marketing is to ask yourself what forms of advertising work on you. I bet "recommendations from family and friends" would top your list of answers. The word of people readers trust is the message that sells books. The web is the most effective medium for delivering that message.

8. What marketing strategies have proven effective and what received knowledge has been found wanting?

eBook Marketing Strategies that Work:
Discredited received wisdom:
9. Is the KU exclusive requirement worth foregoing other publishing sites like the Nook store, Smashwords, etc.?
My experience has been mixed. While my eBook has yet to sell a single copy anywhere besides Amazon, Kindle Unlimited cannibalized my sales in exchange for a much less lucrative share of the KDP Select global fund.

So my approach for now is to go exclusive with Amazon but stay out of KDP Select. This position may change when my second book comes out.

10. What are the best places for writers to connect to potential new readers?
The answer depends on who your target audience is. All of the authors I've cited are pretty much unanimous in saying that you need to identify your audience, learn where they congregate, and join the conversation.

Turning 1,000 of them into hardcore fans will earn you a comfortable living for life.

Those are my informed opinions. Any other questions?

2015/09/29

The Power of Symbols

moose symbol

Storytellers have always used symbols. Even the most ancient texts contain rich symbolism. So do tales predating the written word by millennia.


At first it seems counterproductive to wrap ideas in layers of metaphor. What's easier: saying, "Being too single-minded can land you in trouble," or writing a 635 page book about a guy chasing a whale?


So why do human beings like our messages delivered via symbols? Whatever the reason, it's ingrained deep in our nature. There's no denying that concepts encoded in symbols enjoy far wider distribution and have much longer shelf lives than dry, straightforward discourse. It's a safe bet that the number of people who could tell you one of Aesop's fables is greater than the number who can recite a given passage from Plato's Republic.


Symbols are powerful tools to convey meaning. Contrary to the example above, they can do so quite efficiently. A yellow sign with a moose on it prompts you to drive cautiously better than one saying, "There are moose nearby. They will probably be crossing this street at some point, so you should slow down unless you want your car totaled."


Though symbols are effective, they are best used with a light touch. The paradoxical nature of symbols dictates that their effectiveness increases (at least in literature) with their subtlety. A scruffy ranger who wins a kingdom through trials and selflessness conveys the idea of messiahship without audiences necessarily being aware of what he signifies. On the other end of the spectrum, a talking lion who dies and is resurrected is such an overt allegory that it almost defeats the purpose of using a symbol.


Speaking of which, the Christ figure is probably the most enduring and ubiquitous symbol in all of literature. The same holds for pre and non-Christian societies. Whether a writer thinks that the symbol's content is true or not is irrelevant. There's something fundamental to the human condition that makes most people want it to be.


I've been devoting a lot of space to writing advice lately, but all I can really tell you about using symbols is that 1) you'll do it whether you mean to or not; and 2) resist the urge to explain the symbols you use. As Dean Koontz explains, stained glass windows don't have subtitles.

2015/09/28

Geek Gab: Skin Game

This week on Geek Gab, Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, and I finally get around to discussing Skin Game by Jim Butcher. A lively conversation ensues, covering the origins of the Dresden Files, the geekish splendor in which Mr. Butcher lives, and the current novel's fan favorite villain (warning: possible spoilers).

Give the episode a listen. You just might learn something.


2015/09/25

Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post

On Fairy Stories

Over at Superversive SF, commenter ksterlingh offers constructive criticism of my previous post. Technical difficulties prevent me from responding in Superversive's comments section, so I'll post my reply here. Since the original reply approaches post length itself, I'll address it point-by-point.

ksterlingh's comments will appear in italics. My replies will appear in bold.

Hi Brian, this article left me a bit confused.

I'll do my best to remedy that.

It seems you don’t enjoy many current epic fantasy series,

Correct. Because modern epic fantasy has suffered a total inversion from its original purpose. It's the Holy Roman Empire of spec fic.

and I’m not going say you are wrong in not liking them. That’s personal taste.

De gustibus...

But the end of your article suggests these are “pure nihilism” (among other things which I disagree with but will leave alone).

Here's one likely reason you were confused. My post was an examination of my estrangement from current fantasy. The impetus for my post was Leo Grin's article, which finally explained why I (and, there's good reason to believe, many others) have grown so disenchanted with the fantasy genre. I can't take credit for identifying nihilism as a major flaw in contemporary fantasy. That was Leo. He makes a compelling case. If you didn't read it before, take the time to do so here.

I can’t speak about the Belgariad, or the full series of Wheel of Time. But the first book of Wheel of Time and everything written in the Kingkiller Chronicle universe is hardly nihilistic.

I didn't call any of those books nihilistic. Here's the quote I used from Leo Grin:
The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.
Immediately after which I added:
Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy...
I did mention those series, but in the context of fantasy that I tried reading and gave up on. At the time I didn't know why. Leo Grin's article illuminated several deficiencies that turned me off from current fantasy. Nihilism is his main culprit, but I quoted him calling out others, including:
  • Period soap operas with superficially fantastic trappings sold as epic fantasy
  • Excessively drawn-out plots with no endgame in sight, and probably not in mind
  • Postmodern deconstruction of myth (i.e. anti-fantasy) sold as fantasy
  • And, yeah, nihilism
Now, my list of contemporary fantasy series prefaced a train of thought where I pondered why I didn't like them as much as Tolkien's work and then pointed to Grin's article as an answer. I didn't get into a play-by-play account of what I disliked in each series, because I was making a general observation about the fantasy genre as a whole.

But in the interest of clarity, here you are:

I didn't get around to The Belgariad until earlier this year. Friends told me they thought it was awesome when they were kids. I don't think it holds up. It's pretty derivative of Tolkien, right down to the War of Wrath style prologue. That's no slight against Eddings. His work is the earliest on my list, and his perch on Tolkien's shoulders wasn't as crowded as it's become since.

The Wheel of Time has a lot of good points--if only because there's so much of it. I was a big fan of the series until one rather uneventful day got stretched over three or so books. I haven't read Sanderson's installments, but the prior volumes are based on an explicitly cyclical view of history and a pseudo-Hindu cosmology which, while not nihilistic, leaves little room for hope.

The Name of the Wind--the only Kingkiller Chronicle book I've read--isn't overtly nihilistic, either. It is steeped in a self-congratulatory secularism that should be pretty obnoxious to anyone with even a basic understanding of Western history. ORGANIZED RELIGION BAD! SECULAR UNIVERSITY GOOD! Where, exactly, did the idea of the university come from, again?

I will argue that NotW's protagonist conforms pretty well to the archetype of a Nietzschean superman.

I guess I can see ASOFAI seeming that way, since the world is grim and there are nihilists within it, but there are certainly moral characters to choose from.

Have you read Martin's books, or have you just seen the TV show? I've read the whole series thus far. It's not just a matter of the setting, mood, or characters. It's how all of those elements interact to shout from the rooftops that the philosophy underlying ASoIaF is unadulterated nihilism. When I mentioned "a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism," this series is what I had in mind.

The presence of moral characters doesn't absolve a book of nihilism. Most nihilistic works that I've seen specifically include moral characters so they can be mocked and abused. ASoIaF is firmly in this camp. Name one moral character whose virtue is rewarded. Point out one instance where cynical Machiavellianism isn't the winning behavior. If you can come up with any, I've got a dozen counterexamples for each.

The baffling part is that after criticizing these series you laud Robert E Howard? It may be true that current series do not work as heavily in mythic elements, but uhmmm… Conan is somehow not nihilistic?

No. Conan is not nihilistic. I've only read a couple of Howard's Conan stories. That's why I deferred to Leo Grin, who's an acclaimed Howard scholar. Again, read his article.

Compared to WoT or KC? His unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle never came off to me as exactly moralistic in tone.

Not being moralistic isn't sufficient cause to brand a character as nihilistic. Neither is mere evil behavior. Being (and I use the term loosely) a philosophy, Nihilism is an underlying context and reason for behavior. A nihilist could just as easily perform an intrinsically good act, but his reason for doing so would differ from, say, a Christian's. It's vital to keep in mind that presenting "nihilist" and "moral" as direct opposites is a false dichotomy.

One could argue he has Pagan virtues but then all of those you cited have that as well. And Howard’s sharp attacks on civilization while fetishizing the physically gnarled and fierce Picts (across his writing), don’t quite mesh with a heavy moralistic framework.

Yes. Conan practices pagan virtues--like courage and his earthy brand of wisdom. I'll take your word for it that Howard attacked civilization. So? Bringing that up would only make sense if you were accusing Howard of being an anarchist; not trying to claim that Conan is a nihilist.

And here again, it's assumed that a "moralistic framework" is antipodal to nihilism. A nihilist isn't simply an amoral person. He's someone who denies that objective truth exists. Remaining consistent in his nihilism would require admitting that all morality is false, but that's a consequence of nihilism; not the philosophy itself. (And since he denies truth, he's not obliged to be consistent, anyway.)

Conan doesn't deny truth. He leaves the Big Questions to priests and philosophers, but according to Howard experts and the few stories of his I've read, Conan does acknowledge a fundamental order to the universe. It's each man's job to discover the truth for himself, but it's clearly there. 

I disagree with Wright’s assessment of what fantasy is “meant” to satisfy. It can of course play the role he describes but it is a genre which can be used for many things.


"Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through."

You're right that fantasy can play a lot of roles. But that's not the question I asked in my original post. I wanted to know what this "fantasy" thing is, and you can tell what something is by its true purpose. Tolkien and Wright don't deny that fantasy is versatile. They assert that the glimpse it gives us of fairyland--what Tolkien called eucatastrophe; what we around here call the superversive--is definitive.

It's interesting that you counter a statement of fantasy's defining purpose with an observation that fantasy has many purposes. The two statements aren't mutually exclusive unless you're arguing that fantasy has no defining purpose, in which case it's really nothing, which is a remarkably nihilistic claim.

The idea that Howard’s blood-soaked terrains were somehow pointing to a less disordered time, a golden age or paradise, is… questionable? Definitely simpler times, but not the rest.

"Disordered" in my original post didn't mean "socially disorganized". I meant it as, "not living according to authentic human nature". Whether folks in the Hyborian Age lived more contrarily to human nature than we postmoderns do is a debate I'm willing to have.

I'm glad we agree that Howard's work gives us a glimpse of simpler times. Thus, it satisfies that aspect of fantasy's primary purpose.

And with regard to mythic elements, if I remember right Howard became tired of the same euro-tropes and was trying to shift into “pioneer”, basically old-west, style motifs.

How did we get on the subject of geography? So what if Howard switched to writing westerns? His fantasy is all that's relevant here.

And I say this as a person who really likes Howard.

Another point of agreement!

If your “ages undreamed of” include unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle, then nihilism does not seem to be your biggest concern in fantasy fiction.

We've already dispensed with this conflating of general immorality and nihilism.

Next, I'm quoted saying:

“The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?”

Isn’t that ASOFAI all over the place? All of the major characters are doing the first part, and a fair yet dwindling number are doing the second as well (which underlines the impossible odds).

Reread that quote from me. I wasn't giving two related elements of a story grounded in hope. I was contrasting a fundamentally nihilistic story with a fundamentally hopeful one. Indeed, most major characters in ASoIaF do the first part--which makes them nihilists. The fact that the few characters who persevere against impossible odds grow fewer all the time due to always having their hopes betrayed SHOWS THAT HOPE IS A LOSING BEHAVIOR in Westeros.

It occurs to me that this might be where the confusion over nihilism and morality came from. To clarify, nihilism is a metaphysic that denies objective truth. Therefore there are no moral truths. Consequently, to a nihilist, virtues (like hope) are stupid and for losers. That doesn't mean that nihilism=immorality. Everyone behaves immorally from time to time, but not everyone is a nihilist.

Unless you mean stainless virtue, in which case I can go back to Howard and ask for examples.

Of course every character doesn't have to be immaculate to qualify a story as fantasy. Look at Boromir.

And finally, you end by congratulating Leo Grin (with a link to a post titled “Leo Grin grins when he slays”) for induction into the Evil Legion of Evil.

That's right. Think I'll do it again. Congratulations, Leo!

Yes yes I get it’s all ironic,

I assume you're referring to the organization's name. I'm glad you get the irony, because the following suggests otherwise:

but that does seem to be sending mixed messages given the rest of the piece. Persevere in virtue?

A bunch of writers are "sending mixed messages" because their group's name uses a literary device? That's a bigger stretch than saying that J.K. Rowling advocates witchcraft.

Then there's this:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Is. 45:7)

Since that verse doesn't tempt me into the heretical belief that God actually creates evil, you can understand why a group of writers ironically calling themselves the Evil Legion of Evil doesn't scandalize me.

Please take this as constructive criticism and not just running your post down. I really did feel confused about the message being delivered.

Thanks for your time and effort. Please consider this post a constructive critique of your comment constructively critiquing my previous post. Hopefully it cleared things up.

2015/09/23

Middle Earth 90210: How Tolkien and Howard's Successors Blew Their Inheritance

Leo Grin

As this blog's subtitle implies, I write speculative fiction. So far my works include hard SF, mil-SF, weird fiction, SF/horror, and space opera.

Perhaps you noticed the absence of fantasy from that list. The omission seems even stranger when you consider that I'm an incorrigible Tolkien fan. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion had a strong influence on my formation as a writer. Yet I haven't published any epic fantasy, nor do I read it anymore, except for revisiting Tolkien.

It's not for lack of trying. I made good faith attempts at reading many of the more popular epic fantasy series: The Belgariad, The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc. In fact, I've almost certainly read more fantasy books than sci-fi books.

Yet the pattern is always the same. A new series is recommended. I dive in with enthusiasm. The story sets its meticulously crafted hook. Enjoyment is had--largely derived from the wonder of exploring a new world that never was. At some point (it could be upon finishing the fifth book, or the third, or the first, or halfway through the first), the spell fades. I put the series aside, and increasingly, the genre as a whole.

Why this strange, almost total dissatisfaction with fantasy? If something's not working, considering what the thing was designed for can help identify the fault. As John C. Wright has said, fantasy is meant to satisfy--if only partially and temporarily--the intrinsic human thirst for a world that's simpler and less disordered than ours; a lost golden age or paradise.

Epic fantasy pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard understood the purpose of the genre they invented. As Cimmerian blog editor Leo Grin pointed out in a 2011 article that's only grown more relevant with time, this understanding has largely escaped Tolkien and Howard's heirs.
The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.
Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy--a sentiment I'm far from alone in holding, if the precarious financial standing of those works' publishers is any indication.

The truth is that little if any real fantasy--heroic tales grounded in myth that feed our longing for ages undreamed of--has been published (or pushed) by the Big Five in quite some time. Instead we're given aimless soap operas that read like prime time cable scripts with a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism.

Note that "nihilistic" isn't synonymous with "dark". The former describes a particular philosophy underlying a story. The latter is a description of mood. You can have an upbeat yet fundamentally nihilistic story, or a dark and eerie story that's ultimately grounded in hope. The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?

Congratulations are due to Leo Grin, both for shedding light on the sad state of contemporary fantasy, and for his well-deserved induction into the Evil Legion of Evil. May he receive what is best in life.

2015/09/22

The Long-Awaited Liberation of Rachel Griffin

Rachel Griffin

It is with great enthusiasm that I report that my esteemed editor, L. Jagi Lamplighter, has regained all rights to her work from her former publisher, Tor Books.

Jagi has stated that her rights reversion has been in the works for over a year. It had nothing to do with recent controversies between various Tor employees and authors over the Hugo Awards. I, for one, look forward to seeing what Jagi's new publisher, Chameleon, has planned for her Rachel Griffin and Prospero books.

And while the paroxysms that have been shaking traditional publishing lately don't deserve full credit for this boon to Jagi's career, the two events are related. If nothing else, the loss of yet another excellent author to small press or indie brings the inevitable collapse of legacy publishing one small step closer.

2015/09/21

Souldancer Deleted Scene

Whenever I revise a novel, scenes--and even whole chapters--end up getting cut. Most of the time, material isn't cut because it's terrible. Quite often, scenes become casualties to continuity changes. Others need to go because they inflate the number of peripheral POV characters, while some otherwise solid scenes must be pruned to streamline the story's flow.

One scene that appeared in the first draft of Souldancer featured a conversation between Nakvin and Sulaiman that established what both of them had been up to since Nethereal and laid out Sulaiman's plan for dealing with the Cataclysm. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a good place to put the scene that didn't interrupt the narrative flow, and it was cut from later drafts.

I recently rewrote the scene using the Maass exercises detailed here. My editor liked the results, urged me to include it, and even suggested the perfect point to fit it in. So one of my tasks for the final Souldancer revision is to restore the Sulaiman/Nakvin scene. The finished version will undergo a rewrite, but here's the scene that resulted from running the Maass exercise.


The thread of light cutting a narrow trail through the prevailing dimness; the rustling of silk against stone disturbing the silence; the scent of lavender overshadowing the odor of dust and rotting books—all of these announced Nakvin’s intrusion to Sulaiman as clearly as any herald.

He stayed hunched over the tomes and scrolls on the ancient archives desk, even when she stood directly behind him.

“I know what you’re doing, Sulaiman.”

Sulaiman didn’t pause from making a note in the margin of a commentary on the Burned Book. “One should hope so, my liege.”

The silk of Nakvin’s robe whispered as she made a few discreet motions. Every candle in the room blazed with a flame many times larger, brighter, and hotter than before.

Sulaiman squinted. Queenship suits her well. She proceeds from strength to strength.

“Damn it, Sulaiman,take a minute out from plotting to kill my daughter, stand up like a man, and face me.”

With an inner grin, Sulaiman did as he was ordered. Nakvin stood before him; arms draped in lily white sleeves folded across her chest. Tresses black as ravens’ wings framed a pale face whose silver eyes seemed to pierce his soul.

“You didn’t think you’d keep this from me,” she said.

“I did not.”

Rage seethed behind Nakvin’s stern visage. “Then why in the name of all the departed gods did you scheme to kill Elena under my own roof!?”

Sulaiman felt the queen’s wrath wash over him, but he kept calm with an effort. “You know the necessity of my work as well as I,” he said. “One death will spare the lives of untold innocents.”

Nakvin’s face fell, but she soon rallied. “Elena didn’t ask for what happened to her. Others put her into that position. She’s no more guilty than the billions who died in the Cataclysm; and less guilty than some I could name.”

The degree to which Nakvin’s claim shook him surprised Sulaiman. He was not unfamiliar with moral philosophy, having debated such matters in the Skola while he was yet a prefect on Mithgar. Is it just to kill even a single innocent if a hundred be saved? Sulaiman had thought the hypothetical solved to his satisfaction. After all, there were far more than a hundred souls at stake, and the girl was far from blameless, whatever her mother said.

But deserving of death?

Sulaiman’s inner conflict must have shown on his face, because Nakvin said, “You’re a prefect of Midras, sworn to defend the innocent. Despenser may have made you a monster on the outside, but you’re still the same soul who gave me his cloak when I’d lost mine.”

A terrible weight pressed down on Sulaiman’s heart. He struggled against it for a moment before finally letting it crush every rationalization. “As you say, my part is protecting the weak from the wicked. My god’s abdication changes nothing. And perhaps one who kills an innocent to save millions himself deserves death. Yet the task must be done.”

Sulaiman marched toward the stairs, brushing past a stunned-looking Nakvin.

“I’ve been damned before,” he said. “Let the pain of this deed rest upon me.” He took the first step.

2015/09/19

Geek Gab: Writing Ain't Much of a Living


This week's episode of Geek Gab was supposed to be about Skin Game; then Agents of Shield, but we ended up talking about Daddy Warpig's book deal (congratulations!) and Larry Correia's epic fisking of a HuffPo article on self-publishing.

Note to aspiring authors: listen to Daddy Warpig's writing advice. Take notes on it. Internalize it. Live it.

2015/09/18

Disney's Competence to Guide Star Wars Undermined in New Novel's Aftermath

Star Wars Aftermath

Unless you've been living on Mars, the buzz surrounding Disney's acquisition of the Star Wars franchise, and their plans to release a whole new series of films, has completely enmeshed you in an inescapable web of hype. The first wave of movie marketing has already arrived in a multimedia blitz incorporating everything from comics to trading cards; toys to games (this one being particularly awesome).

Calling expectations "high" would be the understatement of the decade. We all remember how life-changing the original Star Wars trilogy was. We also remember (however much we try to forget) how much the prequel trilogy sucked. We desperately want--need the new movies to be better than I, II, and III.


According to recent signs, they won't. They'll probably be worse.

Aftermath: Star Wars: The Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first canonical Star Wars novel to bridge the years between Episode VI and Episode VII. The book has been released to overwhelmingly negative reviews. Although the author tries to deflect some of the backlash with conspiracy theories involving bigots and disgruntled old school fan spammers, the book's disjointed, tonally dissonant writing style is what's drawing the lion's share of the criticism. The book's hyper-punctuated title is a pretty accurate foretaste of what awaits readers within.

Whenever some new iteration of a popular IP critically misfires like this, the question always seems to be whether it's a case of creative talent mismatch or executive meddling. Chuck Wendig, the author of Aftermath, has written several favorably reviewed books, none of which seem to share that same impenetrable, pseudo-literary style.

So either Wendig picked his once-in-a-lifetime shot at writing Star Wars to start going all art house, which would be catastrophically dumb, or he had a bunch of Disney suits breathing down his neck; telling him to make it more "relevant" and "mature". Based on some quick research into how Disney operates, I'm going with option 2.

Evidence of Disney Meddling
Remember when comedic genius Edgar Wright resigned as director of Marvel's Ant-Man?


Wright hasn't said very much about his departure, which is probably a smart move, but it's pretty clear that script changes made at Disney's behest were the "creative differences" that led to his exit.

Toy Story
Tom Hanks called Katzenberg's version of Woody "a jerk".
Then there was the time when Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg nearly got Toy Story cancelled by forcing Pixar to make it darker, even to the point of making Woody the villain. Luckily, Pixar found their backbone when a test audience panned the early version. But a bad precedent was set for Disney executives forcing artistic changes, despite being completely out of touch with what their audience wants.

A pattern seems to be forming wherein aloof Disney executives force baffling, artistically destructive decisions on their talent, usually in misguided attempts to make the product more appealing to adults and more socially conscious. There's no hard proof that this happened to Wendig, but the violence done to Aftermath is consistent with Disney's MO.

How do these three artistic blunders augur for the upcoming Star Wars films? Poorly, I'm afraid.

There is one ray of hope. Toy Story proved that directors can successfully defend their creations' integrity against Disney's wishes. Thus, the fate of Star Wars Episode VII rests on the shoulders of J.J. Abrams.

Setting aside Abram's recent past as the guy who basically made the same Star Trek movie twice in a row, comments he's made about the casting of Episode VII may be hints that entertaining the franchise's core fans isn't his top priority.

Whether you like the cast of Episode VII or not (and I've been a fan of John Boyega since Attack the Block), saying that it's important for movie characters to look like the audience undermines claims of color blind casting. And if you're using any other criteria than "Can this actor give the best portrayal of this character?" you risk churning out the same preachy message fic that's destroying print science fiction.

Can J.J. Abrams make a good Star Wars film? Yes, if he embraces an artistic vision that prioritizes fun. He can even include a Very Special Message, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story. But if he doesn't stick to his guns when Disney execs show up with "notes"; if he turns what should be Star Wars' triumphant return to the silver screen into a 90 minute lecture, then Episode VII will reach depths to which not even Episode I sank: the level of cynical propaganda.

2015/09/16

How to build 3D Characters with the Maass Breakout Novel Exercise

Writing the Breakout Novel

I've been making final revisions to my next novel, and my editor recommended a few ideas from Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent extraordinaire Donald Maass. One day, Maass set out to see if best selling novels had any significant common elements. His research consisted of reading 100 novels that had enabled their authors to "break out" into the mainstream. Maass claims that he did in fact discover certain recurring qualities that strongly correlate with greater success.

I'd read the book years ago, and liked it, but time had taken its toll on my memory. Having been reacquainted with Maass' useful tips, I thought I'd share a couple of them--specifically, a set of exercises designed to make flat characters three dimensional.

Maass Exercise A
  • Take a character.
  • Write down that character's main quality.
  • Write down a contrasting quality.
  • Write a short scene in which the character demonstrates the contrasting quality.
Exercise A is easiest to do with supporting characters. It's intended to get you thinking about them as real people; not puppets or furniture.

Maass Exercise B
  • Take a character (could be the same one you ran through Exercise A).
  • Write down that character's main goal.
  • Write down another of the character's goals that opposes the main goal.
  • Write a short scene in which both goals pull the character in two directions.
Exercise B is easiest to do with main protagonists/antagonists. It's designed to add character depth by adding conflict.

Let's run through exercises A and B using a character who is well known to everyone on the planet:


Han Solo

Not only is Han Solo enthroned in the pantheon of Western pop culture, he has a bunch of new movies coming up, making this post both informative and topical!

Since Han is such complex, fully realized badass, I bet we can find a single scene that will pull double duty and satisfy both exercises at once. As usual, The Empire Strikes Back shows us the way.

Maass Joint Exercise A and B: Han Solo
  • Main quality: Ruggedly independent
  • Secondary quality: Heart of gold
  • Main goal: Pay off Jabba the Hutt.
  • Opposing goal: Win Princess Leia's affections.
When Empire begins, Han has already resolved a prior conflict between his main goal of appeasing Jabba and his loyalty to his friends. The stakes--and the conflict--are immediately made more personal, as his camaraderie with his rebel friends has deepened into a budding romance with Leia in particular.

Near the start of the film, Han has a series of conversations with Leia and his commanding officer, during which we are informed that he's spent far more time with the Rebel Alliance than he'd intended. Jabba is now so furious that he's put out a contract on Han. If Han wants to survive, he needs to pay off his debt right away.

Han's dilemma is bad enough, but as we learn during his heated exchange with Leia, his conflicting desires for independence and love prevent him from reaching a complete resolution.

Han Solo: Well Princess, it looks like you managed to keep me here a while longer. 
Princess Leia: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it's dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they've activated the energy shield. 
Han Solo: That's a good story. I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight. 
Princess Leia: I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain. 
[Chewbacca laughs] 
Han Solo: Laugh it up, fuzzball. 
The key to this scene is the utterly transparent way in which Han projects his yearning to stay with Leia onto her. His fierce independent streak won't let him admit his need for anyone else. These opposing feelings and goals create plenty of conflict--which sucks for the characters but is lots of fun for us.


If you're frustrated that your characters don't seem to be "working", or readers complain that your protagonist is a cardboard cutout, give Donald Maass' exercises a try. I also recommend that authors who are serious about writing for a living check out his book. It's certainly helping me refine the sequel to mine.

2015/09/15

Eyewitness to PNH Outburst Refutes CHORF Cover Story

This blog's regular readers may recall Tor Science Fiction Manager Patrick Nielsen Hayden's unprofessional outburst in response to my editor's appeal for reconciliation at this year's Hugo Awards. Now, more than three weeks after the fact, Teresa Nielsen Hayden emerges with a markedly (and conveniently) different version of events.
Lamplighter's the one who got warned that she was pushing the limits on the convention's code of conduct.
Here's a denial: Patrick didn't even raise his voice to Jagi Lamplighter. JCW fabricated the entire story.
Not having been there, I can only offer my testimony as a character witness for the Wrights. They are two of the most generous, most honest, and yes, holiest people I've had the honor of working with. Still, my appraisal of the Wrights' high moral character understandably carries less weight than eyewitness testimony.

Thankfully, we have that, too.
...I couldn't hear what PNH was saying, all I could hear was volume and Jagi coming away chagrined. She had gone over to offer an olive branch and got yelled at for her troubles.
There was only one (very short) time when the Wrights were at at the 'con when I or my husband wasn't nearby. Get the fabricators to 'splain when Jagi was "cautioned." Unless they get very lucky, I suspect I can prove they're lying.
May indie hasten the decrepit and corrupt legacy publishing cartel's collapse.

2015/09/14

Legacy Publishing's Pyrrhic Victory: Indie and Amazon Gain eBook Dominance

AAp eBook Sales
Source: authorearnings.com
License
Legacy publishers scored an apparent victory back in November when, as a result of heated negotiations with Hachette Group, Amazon reinstated agency pricing for the Big Five. The first batch of sales reports since the agency model's return show that the Big Five took a big gamble and lost.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, agency pricing is an alternative to the more common wholesale model. The main difference is that with wholesale the retailer sets the price and with agency the price is set by the publisher.

Agency vs. Wholesale
Source: Publishing Trendsetter
Here's a fact that seems odd at first glance: under the wholesale model, publishers and authors made more money. One of Amazon's main arguments against agency pricing was that they, as the #1 eBook retailer, knew the pricing sweet spot that yielded maximum profits. They even warned that the prices sought by the Big Five under the agency model were far too high.

The situation doesn't appear to make sense. Why would publishers fight for a pricing scheme that earns them and their authors less money?

But if you consider the fact that legacy publishers' only real competitive advantage is their dominance over paper distribution, the picture becomes crystal clear.

For decades, the only way a book could succeed was if a publishing house let it into the paper distribution system that they controlled. Their power to make or break books and authors was absolute.

Then Amazon came along and invented a whole new kind of publishing that the old guard didn't control. Instead of beating Amazon at its own game through innovation, the Big Five jacked up eBook prices in a misguided attempt to protect their paper sales.

That approach almost made sense when the Big Five had 60% of the eBook market. They figured that they could drive readers away from Kindle and back to Barnes and Noble by charging the same for a string of ones and zeroes as for a slab of ink-stained lumber. Once again, they thought they could leave readers without a choice.

But there was one thing that legacy publishing didn't count on.

2015 Daily Gross $ Sales
Source: authorearnings.com
License
Outfits like Publishers Weekly have been reporting on declining sales of print books and eBooks. It's been pointed out that these reports rely on figures from Nielsen BookScan, which only tracks sales from a handful of legacy retailers. Many self-publishing advocates have voiced suspicions that the Big Five's abuse of power is driving readers and authors to go indie, but there was no hard proof.

That is, until now. During the same period that the Big Five's share of the eBook market has basically flipped from 60% to 40%, Amazon reports that eBook sales have risen overall.

Compare the chart above to the one below. The ratio of legacy to indie dollar sales on eBooks is almost exactly the reverse of the ratio of legacy author earnings to indie author earnings. The best interpretation of these data? Indie authors are massively outselling overpriced legacy eBooks.

2015 Aug Author Earnings
Source: authorearnings.com
License
An eventuality unforeseen by the Big Five has thrown a wrench in their plans. Readers and authors are leaving legacy publishers for indie, reader-centric traditional publishers like Baen, and small publishers like Castalia House.

Considering the unprofessional and downright tyrannical behavior of some legacy publishing houses, the Big Five's downfall can't come soon enough.

2015/09/12

Nethereal Review at Yard Sale of the Mind

Nethereal

I'm greatly pleased to report that the redoubtable Joseph Moore has reviewed Nethereal with his customary insight and wisdom.

Here's a sample:
Nethereal is an exercise not so much in world-building as in universe-building. Niemeier creates a universe only superficially related to ours, and then explores the differences. This universe is laid out with great care throughout the book, so I won’t spoil it by describing it here – part of the fun here is not knowing what is going on until later events reveal it. The Nethereal universe is intricate and imaginative, and provides an engaging backdrop against which the drama and personalities unfold.
After much travail and derring-do, the story’s climactic battle is mind-blowing – and a good set up for the next book in the series. Nethereal is well worth the read.
Go read it all at Yard Sale of the Mind.

2015/09/11

Project Updates

I've been blessed with an abundance of projects lately, so I thought I'd update everyone on what's in store for the near future.

Geek Gab

First up, I'll be rejoining Daddy Warpig and Dorrinal tomorrow at 4 PM Central for a brand-new episode of Geek Gab, which made its highly anticipated and triumphant return last week. I'm super excited about tomorrow's show topic: Mad Max: Fury Road.

While we're on the subject of podcasts, I'd be remiss not to mention that more Superversive SF live streams are on the way.


Nethereal Alternate
Nethereal alternate cover sketch by Marcelo Orsi Blanco
A little farther ahead on the horizon, work on my second novel Souldancer is progressing nicely toward a December 2015 release. On a related note, I'm ecstatic to report that the international team of experts responsible for helping me put Nethereal together have returned to make sure that the sequel meets the same high standards.

The lovely, gracious, and talented L. Jagi Lamplighter is executing editing duties as I write this post. Her most significant comment on Souldancer so far has simply been to call it "eerie". So I know I've done my job.

Yes, the second book is scarier than the one set in hell. Take a moment to reflect on that.

An eerie book demands an eerie cover. I'm pleased to announce my renewed collaboration with an artist whose work my esteemed colleague David Hallquist described as "Pure nightmare fuel": the inimitable Marcelo Orsi Blanco. I'm sure he'll adorn Souldancer in a cover that will at least match his exquisite work on its predecessor.

Nethereal Alternate Cover 2
Nethereal alternate cover 2 by Marcelo Orsi Blanco
Marcelo's policy is to offer three initial sketches, one of which is refined into the final cover. Last time I only asked a few close friends and colleagues for feedback. For Souldancer I'll be posting the proposed cover sketches here and on my other social media feeds so YOU can vote on them.

It's shaping up to be an exciting book launch. Keep an eye on this blog, plus my Twitter and Facebook posts for more news and special offers as Souldancer gets closer to release.


Sci Phi Journal

Last chronologically, but far from least in importance, my short story "Anacyclosis" has been scheduled to appear in Sci Phi Journal #10.

Issue #7 was released just recently, and editor Jason Rennie reports that he and the SPJ staff are busy assembling Issue #8. If you're a sci-fi fan from way back who finds the current wave of message fic alienating, or if you're new to SF but have a philosophical bent, I strongly encourage you to give Sci Phi Journal a try.

2015/09/10

New Statement on the Hugo Data from Sasquan

Cathy Mullican sends this new reply to my demand that Sasquan follow the non-binding resolution passed at this year's business meeting and release the Hugo Award nominating data.
The nominating and voting statistics are available from http://www.thehugoawards.org/content/pdf/2015HugoStatistics.pdf -- this is the data that has been released by every Worldcon since before I began attending. It gives a clear understanding of the nomination and voting process, the number of nominations each work received, the vote counts at each stage, and the total number of nominators and voters.
The non-binding resolution passed this year regarded more specific nomination information. While Sasquan agreed to the resolution in good faith, unexpected complications have arisen in the process of trying to anonymize the data sufficiently for release -- including the need to comply with European data privacy laws.  When we are satisfied that the data can be released in a form that protects the privacy of all nominators, it will be.
In light of this generous offer from Jason Rennie--who works in medical research, and is therefore intimately familiar with utilizing data while maintaining the utmost confidentiality--it seems that little stands in the way of ensuring voter anonymity to Sasquan's satisfaction. I look forward to seeing the nomination data soon.

2015/09/09

Review: Hard Magic by Larry Correia

Hard Magic

A friend was recently asked which novel is the best introduction to Larry Correia's work. She recommended Hard Magic: Grimnoir Chronicles Book I, and I was reminded that, although I've read and enjoy the book, I haven't reviewed it yet. This post is meant to correct that oversight.

NB: I'll do my best to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but those who haven't read Hard Magic and want to approach the novel totally fresh should proceed with caution.

It's 1932, albeit a very different time from the one our grandparents knew. Certainly there are similarities. The ashes of the Great War aren't yet cold, and the unquenched embers threaten to spark an even more terrible conflict.

On the other hand, the war ended with pyrokinetics and demon summoners driving the Kaiser's undead army behind the walls of Berlin. Imperial Japan prepares for global conquest, its dictator's ruthlessness more than making up for broken Germany's absence.

Magic--or a force practically indistinguishable from it--appeared in 1849. That power has wrought monumental changes through the one tenth of one percent of the world's population strong enough to wield it,

Two such gifted individuals are Jake Sullivan: war hero, federal prisoner, and gravity-altering Active with far more ingenuity than the typical Heavy; and Faye Vierra: ADD-afflicted Dust Bowl refugee and teleportation prodigy. They find themselves drawn together even as they're drawn deeper into an occult war with hundreds of millions of lives at stake.

My Perspective
The Grimnoir

Hard Magic was the first Larry Correia book I read. At the time I'd heard of the author and was aware that he was vilified in certain quarters of the SF establishment as a hack writer of gun porn. I was forced to conclude that Larry's accusers couldn't have read his work--or couldn't be speaking honestly if they had.

Yes, Hard Magic (and its predecessor Monster Hunter International, which in all candor I did find to be a little rough--but hey, it's a first novel) features lovingly detailed descriptions of firearms. And yes, its main speculative premise is best described as "diesel punk X-Men".

If you thought there was a "but" coming, what the hell is wrong with you? Gun trivia is awesome--especially when it's delivered with Larry's expert touch. Diesel punk X-Men is such an awesome idea that Marvel's failure to do it first is a sure omen of their decline.

Larry Correia tells imaginative action tales that put fun first--right where it belongs. He is helping to save SFF from the preachy nihilists and socially conscious schoolmarms who've spent the last two decades running genre fiction into the ground.

Reading Hard Magic made me appreciate how thoroughly Larry's detractors underestimate him. Unlike most of the grievance studies set, he grew up on a dairy farm where predawn mornings found him elbow-deep in cow--not indicative of someone who abides laziness. He earned an accounting degree and worked for a Fortune 500 company and a defense contractor--not indicative of an intellectual lightweight.

Most importantly for our purposes, Larry contracted a library-devouring case of the reading bug at a young age--highly indicative of a Real Writer.

Hard Magic isn't just a workmanlike pulp yarn (though it is, that; thank God). From the painstaking historical research (Quick aside: I have a history degree, and I focused on Japanese history. Trust me when I say that Larry got it right.), to a magic system of Sandersonian depth and scale, the book is replete with marks of real craft.

The crowning glory of Hard Magic, though, is its characters. Instances of navel contemplation and lengthy monologues are blessedly lacking. These characters show us who they are by what they do. Usually what they do is kick all kinds of ass, yet the violence always has meaning and is always justified by the stakes.

A recurring character element that jumped out at me while reading is the tension between the families we're born into and the families we choose for ourselves. Loyalty to, and sacrifice for, family struck me as a major theme of Hard Magic (even if the author himself didn't notice).


Conclusion
Hard Magic by Larry Correia delivers rollicking pulp action elevated by trenchant characterization. The author's trademark attention to detail and commitment to fun make this book the perfect jumping-on point for new fans.

2015/09/08

Hugo Committee Reneges on Resolution to Release Data

Hugo Asterisk

In a move that's par for the course in this drama-fraught Hugo Awards season, the Sasquan committee has announced their intention not to follow through on a non-binding resolution to release anonymized data pertaining to the 2015 award nominations.

Back at Sasquan, the BM passed a non-binding resolution to request that Sasquan provide anonymized nomination data from the 2015 Hugo Awards. I stood before the BM and said, as its official representative, that we would comply with such requests. However, new information has come in which has caused us to reverse that decision. Specifically, upon review, the administration team believes it may not be possible to anonymize the nominating data sufficiently to allow for a public release. We are investigating alternatives.
Thank you for your patience in this matter. While we truly wish to comply with the resolution and fundamentally believe in transparent processes, we must hold the privacy of our members paramount and I hope that you understand this set of priorities.
Best,
Glenn Glazer
Vice-Chair, Business and Finance
Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention
In an emotionally charged atmosphere where both sides have been accused of impropriety and some have even voiced suspicions of misconduct on the part of the con administration, do I have to point out how imprudent it is to withhold information that could confirm or refute these allegations?

Here's my email to Sasquan.
Dear Mr. Glazer:
I was disappointed to learn that Sasquan has opted to ignore the non-binding resolution passed at this year\'s business meeting to release anonymized nomination data from the 2015 Hugo Awards. As a supporting Worldcon member who nominated and voted in the 2015 Hugos, I demand that this information be made available.
Best regards,
Brian Niemeier
It's worth pointing out that I am a member in good standing of the World Science Fiction Convention whose supporting membership helped to pay for all the lovely panels, plastic rockets, and asterisks. Keep that in mind while reading Mr. Glazer's response.
Mr. Niemeier,
I, too, am disappointed, but I must take into account the trust the entire membership has given Sasquan to securely and privately record their votes.  That must be of, as I wrote, of paramount importance and specifically, of greater importance than the release of the data.
As to your demand, you have no basis to make such and your membership does not grant you either more or less privilege in this regard. There is nothing in either the WSFS Constitution or the non-binding resolution that forces Sasquan to expose this data.  It is completely and utterly at Sasquan's discretion to do or not do.
Best,
Glenn Glazer
Vice-Chair, Business and Finance
Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention
I thank Mr. Glazer for his prompt reply. I have carefully read and considered his words. Yet words are but the shadows of actions, and the clear message that I and hundreds of this year's Sasquan members received was this:

"We'll take your money and use it to throw a farcical ceremony that mocks your friends, beloved artists, and business associates. Having behaved in a manner that casts a cloud of doubt over the legitimacy of the award process, we'll resolve to share information that could acquit us of disenfranchising a thousand or so paid members, only to pull a sudden heel turn and refuse to give up the goods with the laughable excuse of being unable to share voting data without compromising the voters' privacy. Thanks for the 40 bucks, chump!"

Despite the continued efforts of the con committee and assorted CHORFs to discount and ostracize myself and other like-minded members, I will once again urge Mr. Glazer and the rest of the Sasquan administration to adopt full transparency in regard to any voting irregularities. And for the sake of World Con's already tarnished prestige, the sooner they decide to follow through on their original resolution, the better.

2015/09/07

How to Write Genre Fiction Protagonists

Luke Skywalker

I'd like to share a simple concept. If your protagonist sucks, your story will suck.

The engine that drives every story has three parts: a protagonist, something the protagonist wants, and an antagonist (human, environmental, psychological, etc.) who obstructs the protagonist's attainment of that goal. When you relate what the protagonist does to overcome the obstacles in his way, you are telling a story. Since so much rides on the protagonist, he'd better be interesting.

Here are a few tips for writing protagonists who engage and interest readers.

Goals: as all writers worth their salt will tell you, a protagonist must be properly motivated. There must be some goal that drives him through to the end of the story. Passive characters tossed about by events are dull.

Pseudorealism: note--not realism (unless you're writing interpretive fiction or nonfiction). For genre fiction the idea is to give your characters, especially the protagonist, enough believable personality traits to balance the make-believe elements.

Luke Skywalker is a space shaman prophesied to destroy a galactic empire. If someone approached you today and made the same claims about himself, you'd rightly doubt his sanity. However, we suspend our disbelief in Luke's case because we also see that he's a working guy lamenting his frustrated dreams. That brings us to...

Relatability: a protagonist's mindset and motivations should be largely intelligible. This doesn't mean that you have to spell everything out. In fact, a touch of mystery is good for sci-fi stories. However, if your main character is inaccessible to common human experience, readers will have trouble vicariously inserting themselves into the tale through him. That in turn leads us to...

Sympathy; not Pity: the key to engaging readers is to ease their acceptance of the protagonist as a vehicle for their own vicarious experience. They must live the story through the main character.

There is a spectrum of audience reaction to certain characters that runs from empathy to sympathy to pity.
  • Empathy: feeling what someone else feels as if you were that person.
  • Sympathy: commiserating with someone else's emotional state.
  • Pity: sorrow for another's suffering with undertones of negative emotions like regret, disappointment, contempt, etc.
If readers can actually empathize with your protagonist (which I'm not even sure is possible to do for a fictional character), you've achieved the holy grail of characterization. If on the other hand the reader feels sorry for the protagonist with an undercurrent of contempt, you've engendered pity. Consider reworking to story to elicit sympathy; possibly by giving the character more agency.

It's easier to describe what sympathetic characters aren't instead of what they are. They're not sad sacks; nor do they have to be perfect. Protagonists can even have genuinely rotten flaws such as flagrant bigotry and past murder convictions. As long as the character has at least one redeeming virtue and expresses at least tacit remorse for past wrongdoing, he can earn our sympathy.

These are just a few qualities of effective protagonists. Post any others you can think of in the comments.

2015/09/05

Geek Gab Returns

Geek Gab

Huzzah! Geek Gab returns. I wasn't able to make it due to a scheduling conflict, but Daddy Warpig and Dorrinal capably hold their own.

Listen to their discussion of BBC's Sherlock and the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy here.

2015/09/04

Amazon Stumbles Over Parody Book

John Scalzi Banned This Book

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed my generally favorable disposition toward Amazon. I consider it a public service to refute the deceptive zombie memes spread by Amazon's less scrupulous detractors.

These actions are rooted in my commitment to support what's best for readers and authors. In most cases there's no question that Amazon treats their customers--both writers and readers--better than legacy publishers do. However, I have no qualms about calling Amazon out when they drop the ball.

A disappointing case of Amazon violating their customer-centric prime directive has developed in the last few days. The incident arose in response to an ongoing flame war between best selling author John Scalzi, who recently signed a multi-million dollar contract with Tor Books, and game developer/SFF editor Vox Day, whom one might describe as the sci-fi equivalent of a heel wrestler.

The full details of the controversy can be found here. The part that interests me is Scalzi's request to have a parody book with a highly unflattering invocation of his name in the title removed from the Kindle Store--a request which Amazon granted.

Taking a moment to dispense with an obvious objection, Scalzi sought expert advice on the book's legal status and was informed that it is clearly recognizable satire protected under the First Amendment. So the book's unknown author is guilty of breaking no law.

I also understand that Amazon is a private sector company that has every right to decide what it will and will not sell. That's not the crux of my argument. I maintain that, even though removing the book was well within Amazon's rights, they were stupid to do so.

Bowing to the demands of a best selling, millionaire author makes Amazon look like they're siding with the establishment against the little guy--and in this case, they are.

It doesn't help that the same author chided Amazon back in 2010 for doing what he's just turned around and asked them to do.

Even more disturbing, some customers have reported the book missing from their Kindle libraries (see comments 5 and 10). Amazon has deleted eBooks from customers' Kindles before. Even Amazon president Jeff Bezos called the practice "stupid", but that didn't stop them from doing it again.

And since the book in question was the #1 parody title on Amazon, a lot of people may have had their purchases deleted. Amazon has always issued refunds when they've done this, but it's the perception of confiscating property without the owners' permission that makes this move a huge customer service failure.

Postscript: the book is back in the Kindle Store under a new title. It's to be hoped that Amazon learned the lesson that Sonny Corleone ignored to his peril: don't interfere.