The Thrill of Words

I am about one-thousand words deep into an idea right now. An idea that developed for me because of a culmination of little occurrences that just happened to intersect. How would Feng shui change in the vacuum of space? If the physiognomy of mind, man and earth are separated from one another is Qi still possible?

I wanted to write a dialectic which explored these questions, but in order to accomplish this I’ve needed to also concoct a future history of sorts to contextualize the investigation of my fictional scholar. I am experiencing great word joy at the moment. And in this realization I believe that I may have also discovered a miserable deficit of the language. I cannot find or think of a term or phrase that describes the joy of creating a story.

With that I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the manuscript WINTER CITY ABOVE THE CLOUDS. The full chapter is called “The Death of Chung Do” and it details both the revolutionary rise of the Di Laio dynasty and the fall of the living super arcology Chung Do.

Yelü Abaoji rose to power from the wastes of the apron lands surrounding Chung Do and many historians today argue that his kingdom should have been no more than a momentary aberration in the long history of the people’s socialist triumphs. Initially little more than Baojun, western powers and key party officers alike ignored the hatchet wielding slum lord and labeled his supporters terrorist, kongbu zuzhi, and him Little Khitan Warlord. In that age of high powered munitions and laser guided missile strikes it is true that the hatchets seemed no more than annoyance; isolated riots that were easily and ruthlessly quelled outside the boundaries of the super city.

One party official, who watched as disciplined and armored fangbao jingcha put down an early boundary incursion near a western edge of Chung Do, remarked that the riot police should “leave the Khitan terrorists their hatchets. They can then hack off the limbs of their fallen for something to eat.” Many have speculated that hubris was indeed the one flaw that ended the otherwise indomitable authority of the Communist who inhabited the living super-city of spring. This claim may be reasonable for their pride was indeed quite great. The fact that they had consolidated so much power at the heart of the greatest city ever created, so much good for so many residence of the closed system arcology, was a common thread in the propaganda of the time.

The wasted lands beyond the boundary, an environmental catastrophe in places still today, were known as both a failure of the many Westernization attempts of the Twenty-First Century and a well deserved legacy for the inhabitants who had denied the benefits of Gong Chan. Despite the generations of Khitan that had passed since the seed of Chung Do first sprouted along the eastern shore of Bohai Bay, Gong Chan leadership bared entry into Chung Do. At that time Beijing was then no more than a stinking, desolate corps. A rusted and corrupted example of the gluttony of an impossible economic paradigm. The waste and decay, the unavoidable culmination of three-hundred and fifty years of the Western petrochemical excess, scarred the soil of continents and poisoned the atmosphere of the globe.

Chung Do was the only refuge and from within its ever expanding walls kuozhang was the prevailing doctrine governing the city’s growth. It drank water from the sea, excreting salt and poisons near its northern and southern extremities far below the surface. Chung Do pulled the majority of the nutrition it required simply from the air it breathed. The living city of spring fed, sheltered and cared for generations of inhabitants, a self-sustaining organism supporting a vast, but discrete population.

Now I must sleep, but I am so looking forward to working on this tomorrow.

Something to Consider (Part Two)

This is part two of the DetCon1 redux. You might be wondering, “What the what? He just said he was getting on the plane.” You’d be completely justified to ponder the worst. I’m here to assure you that nothing bad has happened. I took a bump on my flight for a ticket voucher.

If I wasn’t currently sitting back down in the comfy chair they’ve given me next to a plug writing this blog post I’d be up, jumping around, doing a happy dance. My plane ticket to Detroit in September for Geek Fan Expo is now a buried concern. Nearly $600 for three hours of waiting. I was in the Army, I’m good at waiting. Mad skillz, expert mode.

And now, by virtue of having little else to do, I have hours to complete some thoughts about my recent convention experience.

I got to meet Annalee, of Geek Feminism and twitter fame, while at the convention. She has some good things to say on the topic of diversity and harassment, and she is a thoughtful person you should be reading. But it was a real treat for me to meet her, her husband and friends this weekend.

Friday evening we were sitting around in the hotel bar, shooting the breeze, when the topic came around to disability. In particular, invisible disability. It turns out that we have this in common, and that we both have opinions regarding how chronic health issues are portrayed in media. She invited me to join her on the Disabilities in Genre Fiction panel the following afternoon.

I accepted her generous offer, figuring that if I didn’t feel like sharing anything about my seizures or compounding problems that I could just pass the microphone. It also seemed a good opportunity to sit in front of a crowd and gain maybe that little bit more recognition for my writing. And maybe, just maybe, my opinions on the subject might be useful in this discussion.

The panel was a super success. I think the exchange between the audience and the panel was more active and delved deeper into issues ranging from separating the disabled from the general diversity discussion going on in fandom right now to normative memes in media about health issues that just happen to be grossly wrong. Near the end of the panel a question was asked which was spurred by something I had said earlier. It was something like, “Why do you think so many authors get disability wrong.”

Annalee replied, “Because homework is hard,” and she is right. Then she handed the microphone to me. Now on the spot I grabbed an idea I’ve been simmering on a back burner for a while. It’s important to note that I agree with Annalee to a point, some authors are just that lazy. But honestly, I believe that this is ultimately a lack of empathy.

As an example I put forward several seasons of THE WALKING DEAD. My premise is that we’ve witnessed a change in writing for this show.

In early episodes, attempts were made to portray the emotion that the cast of characters must be feeling as their world crumbles around them. In the very first episode “Days Gone Bye“, amongst several emotionally intense moments, one stands out. Rick returns to the legless woman in the park intending to end her suffering. Before he puts down the zombie he whispers “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

At this point, we know two things. First, Rick still sees the dead risen around him as people. Dead or alive, they still deserve his respect and because he is a caring human being, he knows that these afflicted are in fact other people. He treats them with respect, or at least as much as he can afford. The second thing we can know is that the writers want you to feel the conflict, pain and struggle that the survivors must certainly endure. And we know they can write for that effect. With this screen play they’re pushing the viewer into the emotional position of the character. If you’re crying, feeling miserable, even wishing that there was a cure for the zombie flu then they did their job admirably.

Think about that for a moment, the legless woman in the park, is a person. Rick certainly lacks a cure for her condition, but he recognizes the tragedy of the woman’s fate. He does what he can to end her suffering, and he does this with caring and respect.

The invention of the Governor did plenty to muddy the plot arc of the show, but I would argue that it also objectified everyone on the show denying caring. By the end of season four the surviving characters have become little more than meat hacking sociopaths. Increasingly they are portrayed as narcissist who view the “walkers” as little more than obstacles. By transforming the cast this way, the writers are foregoing every opportunity for pathos. The characters in the show don’t feel, why should you?

Most of the episodes in season four seemed to be little more than an excuse for expressions of violence. Daryl loses Beth and do we see him grieve? Not much. Lizzie and Mike are twisted into monsters despite the fact that they are little girls. Rick’s children fare no better, even though they both make to the end of the season breathing, they become an excuse for senseless violence. When the Governor killed Hershel he terminated the shows last link to pathos. I’ve consistently lowered my expectations with each successive season and I expect season five will prove to be little more than a weekly blood bath.

Writing a story can be either a narcissistic expression of an author’s world view which simply sends content out into the wild or the reasoned assumption of responsibility by the creator of the story for both the content and the emotion and even behavior it will consequentially engender. I believe that creators of THE WALKING DEAD have traded the comparably difficult proposition of writing with the intent to provoke thought, emotional response and more specifically pathos for the much easier goal of simply shocking the viewer. And to achieve this, they will invariably dehumanize anyone at far end of a barrel starting with the zombies, followed by anyone who opposes the main cast. The supporting cast is next in line, and so forth. Do you see the danger yet?

One of my favorite aspects of science and consequentially science fiction is that it has the capacity imagine the resolution to many problems. In my opinion really good science fiction may even provide a rough road map which leads the reader through the milestones necessary to achieve, if not a happy, than an improved ending. Zombie stories are becoming, more and more, little more than a value judgement about The Other. Many of these stories provide an instruction set; how we treat those affected by persistent health issues. Zombies were people first; outside the context of the story would we condone the violent and unfeeling abuse of a corps?

DetCon1 Redux (Part One)

I’m sitting just outside the DTW jetty that will eventually have a plane parked at its other end. This plane will take me to PHX and thence further on, and hopefully home, to SEA. While I sit, sipping an iced chai from the coffee stand down the concourse, I’ve been reviewing the last four days. Trying to form the lessons I’ve learned into something I can use moving forward. Articulate the wisdom of those who have gone before me.

I should note that in addition to all the learning and networking I had an awesome time. The North American Science Fiction Convention happened to to intersect with the NetRoots Nation convention. This proved a particularly good sort of kismet for all involved. Every time I had a little down time I was approached by someone from the adjacent affair who would invariably say something like “What’s this all about?” or “I don’t read science fiction, but I want to more ….” In some small way all that curiosity and social boundary crossing I think enriched the experience for all involved. Plus, I believe the verdict was that DetCon1 had the better room parties.

Matt Thyer and Jim Hines

From the get-go my convention schedule seemed subject to change. The Vice President’s visit to the same building meant that I got stuck in some amazing traffic. As a connoisseur of the finest road bound cluster events in Norther America and beyond I can say that this was a classic Interstate stoppage. Ultimately, this meant that I missed my scheduled reading. But don’t feel bummed for me because the agile and capable staff running the convention from the table in the green room busted a move and helped me find a spot on Saturday. Opposite Jim Hines. Which was awesome. Did I happen to mention I read opposite Jim Hines? I should probably say that again, opposite Jim Hines.

Had I nothing to read other than a crap pile of words I would still fail to see how this could have gone badly for me. Jim Hines…. Rather my first reading at a convention turned out to be a fairy tale princess event with butter and bacon. We (and mostly he) packed the room. It was standing room only and as we got ready I couldn’t help grinning madly because I knew that I had selected a black arrow from my quiver.

Chapter four of the second book in the “sports in space” series is about the naval space program’s super secret Atlatl gunboat system told from the point of view of Gunnery Sergeant Capston. I had rehearsed the reading a bunch the night before, I wanted it to go really well. I knew there were three good laughs in the manuscript and the potential for a cringe. They happened, all where I had anticipated they might. Even better I know how I can do a better job next time.

The reading was an amazing learning experience and it also served as a great opportunity to get to know Jim Hines a little better. What a great guy to be friends with. I am really looking forward to Geek Fan Expo in September where we’ll both be special guests.

Speaking of readings, I caught John Scalzi and Jacqueline Carey combined reading. A memorable hour of my life, and one which I can now refer to in an effort to make future readings of my work all the better. Both of these excellent authors are also the very best public readers.

So, yes, watching these two masters read was very helpful and informative. I also got to spend some time face-to-face with them both as well as others. A memorable tid-bit that Scalzi left me with was something like, “The operating mode of writing is failure, so get used to it. Submit, and while you’re waiting write some more. Eventually, you’ll get sales.”

Finally, John’s wife Kristine was at the convention. Much like my wonderful Tess, Kristine is a capable, smart, and loving woman who teams up with her main man in the creative process. Perhaps the most important take away from our conversations was that I was reminded I really need to listen and pay attention to what Tess has to say about my work. Perhaps more importantly what she tells me about the way I conduct my business. She is my first, best fan in addition to my partner. Also, “never compromise when it comes to your work.” Kristine gave me this fundamental as a guideline and then we enjoyed a beer in between panels. If you’re reading this, I’ve heard you both. Loud and clear.

And with that, I must leave you. The plane is at the far end of the jetty and the scent of anticipation is running through the crowd. Yes, there will be more. Stay tuned, big announcements are blog bound.

The Day I Knew I Would Make It

I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help— doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process. I have done a lot during these years of my process. A swell in my process, I have changed from self-image actualization to self-actualization, from blindly following propaganda, organized truths, etc. to searching internally for the cause of my ignorance.

The Warrior Within : The Philosophies of Bruce Lee (1996)

This is my third attempt at this post. But this time I know exactly where I’m headed, what I want to say.

This morning the company, where my wife has worked a mere six weeks, shut its doors. An unfortunate turn of events for all involved, something juxtaposed next to catastrophe for us. We’ve been struggling since I got sick. Every time it appears we’ve found our stride something or someone trips us up. I think worse, we’re both exhausted. That’s just the way it is, the only thing left to do now is take the next step along the path. Acceptance does not matter.

I just took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Always an adequate salve when the need arises. It’s hot and muggy once again so I walked as fast as I could, trying to whip up a cooling breeze without breaking a sweat.

This go at writing feels about the same. Walk only fast enough to get the breeze without overheating. Pacing is important, it makes the long road possible and the dream achievable. And despite all the ups and downs of employment, health and finance, I still have a dream. I am dedicated to the practice of writing.

Thursday I will rise long before the sunshine and head to airport. I will board an airplane and head to DetCon1. There is momentum in this run, maybe not much, but who can afford in the marathon that is life to sit and lose the race?

Holy Cow! Goodreads Giveaway

So sometime in February I purchased a good reads ad. According to their daily emails ~22,000 of you have seen the add and only two of those clicked through to check my book out. Needless to say, I’ve been underwhelmed by Goodreads ads for months now. Daily I get an email telling me how many more of you passed over my book. It’s a slow motion death by microscopic cuts to the ego. One which I am paying for fifty cents at a time.

So it was that, about the same time I bought my plane tickets to DetCon1, I decided that I’d likely have a pile of books to give away soon after the convention. “Why not,” I said to myself, “try out one of these new fangled Goodreads giveaways.” I wasn’t expect much of anything. Worse when I tried to embed the widget for the giveaway on my wordpress site I wound up covered in computer puke, head to foot. Late that night I sort of gave up and went to bed. Then I forgot about it.

Today — after a brief but informative conversation with Steve Drew, Super Fan and Emperor of r/Fantasy — I went and checked the giveaway I had previously scheduled. Now my chin has a bruise on it because that was unquestionably a jaw dropping experience.

Overwhelming response, no advertising

Yes, you read that right 169 people entered to win one of 20 copies with absolutely no advertising. Want one?

“Ting” Is the Sound it Makes

Treasure Planet, a really well done story with admirable role models

When an idea is properly seated in my mind, I don’t so much hear a sound, but rather experience the sensation of those cogs snapping into alignment. This morning, while warming up for some writing, I was dabbling in casual Twitter word dalliance when just such a moment occurred. Pow! Bang, snap … TING! New, formerly unknown mechanisms, found deep within my lump of gray, started rolling and turning.

The problem? For some time I have been concerned, perhaps overly, that my female characters aren’t enough. The smarter and wholly more capable half of my marriage maintains that if I write people, instead of men and women, I will have successfully broached the gender problems most commonly found in contemporary fiction. And I believe she is correct, without reservation. I do, or I try to write people, but then there are those moments when I write something and even she says “that’s some sexist, crap-pile of words there.” Essayer n’est pas fait, non?

Case in point, as a writing exercise, I began writing character sketches of people that I have seen in and around Seattle. I’m making this place my home, and for the first time in my life I seriously do not want to move. Rather I want to reinvent the way I perceive my situation and surroundings. The character sketches are meant to say something about this place and the people who can be found here, while at the same time creating avatars for the spirits that reside only in this place. It is an attempt to write a modern mythos of the city and its surrounds.

I found my raven and wrote her. The narrative voice is that of a early 30-something male who is both critically observant and judgmental.

And so Raven, heart broken with the loss of her closest intimate, took on a cloak of sadness. Dyed with the pigments of pregnant rainclouds as they pass across shadowed tree tops in a winter night sky, for the first time since the eyes of the world opened, she wore her sentiments around her slender shoulders for all to see. Therein, anyone with eyes keen enough, should be able to view loathing and lamentation.

But if you had know Raven before Coyote left her bereft and miserably lonely you might then understand better how all this grief came to be. Had you the privilege of time, she might have spoken to you in the dawn of the world and you would have known, for even then her voice was the rasp of madness as it slid across the grains of a red wooded truth. Raven has always been too clever, and in her voice is the dementia that even the Mad Dog could not endure.

#

Black silk over lustrous, tan skin, she stands beneath the maple melding her savvy brain to the polished complexion of her smart phone by way of that perfect, petite ear. Her honeyed voice murmurs into the microphone hypnotically; audible, but not discernible over the sputtering chatter of bubbling water flowing from a distant fountain. The black stilettos scream something about appearances, but the red paint poking out the end of each shoe, brushed sometime before with meticulous care, is noise confusing that message.

“What gym do you go to?” A question she’s heard a hundred times in a thousand martini bars. “Slim” is a poor choice of words. To describe those compact curves any wordsmith worthy of his dram would need to invade the esteemed halls of automotive PR. “Aerodynamite,” “fasterpiece,” “JOOOY,” she is a four point two liter V-8 turbo, fuel stratified injected, brushed in glossy, metallic black with rich-tanned leather behind the wheel. An automotive masterpiece on two legs, you wouldn’t want to hear her redlined, but a deep, sonorous growl of satisfaction might just fill up your tank. Yeah, you will raid that treasure room of purpose built, designer adjectives needed for this Benz of a woman.

And then to confuse and befuddle just a little more, from out of a tiny, black handbag, until recently tucked under a well muscled arm, she withdraws a vaporizer. Gloss nightmare and chrome, fully charged, she lifts it to her sculpted lips and draws deeply from the reed. The seams of that tailor fit dress strain as she inhales deeply from the slender, ebon phallus, a pair laser carved breasts pushing directly and immediately against the interior of the garment. Then, after a too-long moment, anxious with anticipation, she exhales a gossamer cloud of acrimonious smoke into the courtyard. The dress seems to sigh with relief at the passage of that steely grey cloud. You check your tablet, the P/E on this stock looks great, but oh the maintenance. Upkeep would be a bitch.

Hidden somewhere beneath those matchless mammaries and well beyond that raven hair exists a dark mote. A stain that must be dealt with cruelly. Constantly. Consistently. The saccharine scent of sativa slithers edgewise across the square violating the aroma of your gourmet brew. It is merely breakfast time, the prime commute, and this avatar of Muninn just drew enough high potency, grade A+, medical, BC kush to make Andy Griffith forget Aunt Bee. Something lurks there, dark like a shadow on the far side of a building with rain clouds looming over the Sound. Something even she hasn’t the courage to deal with directly.

The day that I wrote this I could not wait for Tess to come home. I was pretty darn proud of the prose, and it was merely an exercise. A sort of word-workout. Her reaction was less than the “Wow! You’re such an awesome writer Matt,” I was anticipating. When we discussed it later I had to agree that, “Yes, this narrative is from the perspective of a misogynistic, dude-bro occupying a position of undeserved privilege.” The unnamed observer of Raven is a jerk. Not me, but I wrote a jerk.

The question then became, “What does this say about me, the writer?” So I wrote a pair of broken people, I will willingly acknowledge that. Broken people exist, they also happen to be a major component of many stories. And in some way, these characters provide — in their nose dives toward despair and destruction, or in their hard fought assents towards redemption —  much of the texture we seek in our storytelling. Or that’s the way it works for me. But what does that say about me, the writer? It’s not the lasting impression I want to leave on the world with my storytelling. That’s for certain. I’m not a cynical guy and I try, often against great resistance, to find the silver linings in my life.

This morning, Kameron Hurley dropped this tweet into a conversation I was following.

https://twitter.com/kameronhurley/status/486149614588796930

Moments later, after scanning through her impressive panel schedule at Readercon I encountered this gem.

12:00 PM    F    New Models of Masculinity.Erik Amundsen, John Benson, Kameron Hurley (leader), Catt Kingsgrave, Bart Leib. In a comment on Chuck Wendig’s blog, Nobilis Reed wrote, “I think one of the ways that speculative fiction can really change the world in a way that it needs right now, is to provide models of masculinity that don’t involve oppressing people.” There’s no denying that today’s speculative heroes are frequently brooding, violent, incapable of healthy relationships, and otherwise not exactly role model material. This panel will brainstorm ways to create fictional men and masculine people who we’d actually want to spend time with.

And right there was the “ting.” I know that I will likely continue to write broken and flawed people. I can assure you that there will be many more bent Ravens and misogynistic jerk narrators skulking around the ever growing metropolis of my DropBox because they’re necessary. The gallant knight cannot save the fair maiden from the clutches of the evil necromancer if the evil necromancer is someone the maiden might just settle for in the event all the good knights are taken or gay. That practitioner of the dark arts has to suck, and this reality of storytelling cannot be helped.

But it occurs to me that I don’t have to write stories (not that I do) which conform to that plot trajectory. In fact, I don’t have to write about love, sex, gender equality or disparity, misogyny, reverse-misogyny or any of that. Rather, I can focus my will on writing what I know, or want to know better. I can write role models. People who, despite all the wrong decisions in their midst, never fail to feel empathy and good will. Are always there lending a hand when it is needed. Boys and girls and hermaphroditic, changeling, cyborgs we should look up to.

Things may be cracked and little rough around the edges, sure, but there’s no reason we have to focus our attention on those flaws. I feel that too much time is lavished on these negative aspects of our shared reality already. There is no reasonable justification for letting them become the standard flying above our shared imagination.

Writers, Choose Your Side

Good morning world. I’m sipping coffee brewed in a melitta funnel and really enjoying that caffeinated buzz. And I need it too. Yesterday I ran to the top of Granite Mountain (West) in some very muggy, hot weather and then wrote a pile of words for COUNTERFEIT HORIZON. Oh yeah, and we got the washer-dryer stack replaced on the third floor of our townhouse. Good grief, I was productive.

During all of that doing I was patently unaware of the storm brewing in writer-land. It seems that authors all over the world were drawing lines in sand while I slept and now I’ve been asked to choose a side. Yes, we’re talking, once again, about the Hachette/Amazon battle that is still smoldering.

“What has changed?” you ask. A number of prominent, traditionally published authors have recently gone public. They are asking for reader condemnation of Amazon. Then, this morning, Hugh Howey published this petition asking for reader/writer support of Amazon.

Everyone is currently engaged in the truly enduring past time of second guessing one another via public media outlets such as Twitter. And I, I am left scratching my head in bewildered and somewhat misanthropic cloud of confusion. Some days, I can’t not hate you guys.

https://twitter.com/chuckwendig/status/484708195806744577

https://twitter.com/charlesacornell/status/484711319631712256

Where do I stand on this critical matter of the day? When I examine my soul, I find that I just don’t. Hachette and its army of apologists haven’t done anything that has made me like them any more. No book deals offered, not even misleading and unfruitful interest expressed. Amazon, despite being a key component of my “success” as a writer, isn’t making nice-nice with anyone either. The fact of the matter is that two really big corporations are acting worse than poorly raised and regulated toddlers at the play area. And making matters worse they’re both bandwagoning decisive and vocal support for their poorly articulated positions within a darkroom debate.

The best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk.
— Dalai Lama

People, here is a really fine example of the exact wrong moment to express your tightly held beliefs. Amazon and Hachette are using you and your incessant flame wars as an excuse to avoid solving their problem. And you fools are just playing into that dumb game. These corporations need to come to the table and fix their problems. Not you, traditionally published authors, and not you, independent published authors. Both of you are making resolution more difficult and the market much more hostile. This is not your fight, not your problem, and definitely not your job. Authors, your jobs are to write more and learn how to play well with others who write.

https://twitter.com/ryanjlawler/status/484704750693138432

(negative 10 points for derp, and minus 40 points to House Indignation for snarky bullshit)

Do I like and thank Amazon for providing me the opportunity to be published? Hell yes, but that has nothing to do with them manipulating the sales of books for others. Do I care overly much about Hachette teetering no the brink of insolvency? Not my worry either. I’d really appreciate it if both Amazon and Hachette could, henceforth, avoid forcing authors of any publishing imprint into the unenviable position of having to chose between divorcing parents.

Missing the Boat

Sometime on the 26th of June the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America board posted a call asking for opinions about changing their long standing policy regarding independent publishers.

The SFWA Board of Directors is asking members to share their opinions of self-publishing over the summer. The Board has asked the members to consider not just whether or not to make it possible for writers to join on the basis of self-published works but also the issues that would have to be addressed, such as confirming income, sales, and other publishing information from self-published writers. The issue should be submitted to the full membership prior to November’s business meeting at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention.

Members are invited to share their opinions with the Board through emails, via letters to the Forum, on the discussion boards, or at SFWA business meetings.

I’m not currently a member, and given that its been a while since I submitted any SFF to anyone that would constitute a “Qualified Venue” it’s unlikely I’ll ever tie up at that pier. But, as I have previously mentioned, I’d love to find some more company and, regardless of my publishing choices, this is my tribe. I love you SFF people, I truly do. And thus, I offer up some opinions on the topic more as an exercise allowing me an opportunity for self examination, than, in the highly unreasonable expectation, that this might sway the opinions of the SFWA board one way or another.

What Have You Got To Lose?

This is a question I think the SFWA board needs to ask itself. This question might actually constitute justification for one of those legal pad exercises where you draw a line down the middle and write down all the pros and cons. SFWA, as an organization, is a collective effort that has come together to “inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for its member writers.” Despite this, there remains a long standing conflict of interest within the organization.

Membership does not necessarily result in these benefits for its member writers. Rather, it acts as a funnel pushing authors into potentially unfavorable situations with publishers that will certainly take a huge chunk of any sales for works they accept. Is this what advocacy for member writers looks like?

I understand that traditional publishers constitute a significant and meaningful segment of the SFF publishing pie. I am not suggesting that they lose their hard won position within this market, nor am I promoting the idea that we simply do away with traditional publishers and replace them with zombie hoards of independents. In fact, I think publishers serve a meaningful and respectable portion of the market and they accomplish this capitalistic goal remarkably well considering their competition.

It is difficult to publish anything, having ready made teams of people intent on pushing at least some of the creative works that get generated within this space HELPS not only those who get picked up, but everyone who contributes to the market. But should these companies, which receive so many submissions their back logs collectively make the VA’s problems look like child’s play, function as the sole test of quality for the entire genre? The answer is undoubtably “no.” The market itself provides this conclusion. Anyone, who has the time and dedication can write something and get it to readers. Self publishing avenues exists because they meet market requirements.

This is utopian thinking, I realize. Why would publishers advocate for indie access in a space they already control? It’s extremely unlikely they ever would, I see SFWA taking comments more as a reaction to the reality of the market than anything else. Publishers have made it clear they don’t see the value in collective behavior and they don’t seem to understand or appreciate the challenges offered by competing medias. But SFWA should see that their policies do not serve their member writers. It locks anyone who desires membership and publication, at the same time, into accepting whatever is offered by whomever deigns to offer it. “What have you got to lose SFWA?” Plenty of ballast that should have been dumped long ago in my opinion.

Quality Assurance

Even the call for comment issued from SFWA board seems to worry overly much about the question of “how can we keep the rabble out?” SFWA has for a long time now been really worried about the remote possibility of endorsing the undeserved. If you read the comments popping up beneath the call for opinions as well as in blogs all over the internets you’ll find a regular theme, “maybe if they sell enough copies” or “how will we measure indie reach” or “maybe we can make a secondary (somewhat lower class) sort of membership for indies.”

These compromise suggestions, including SFWA’s request for discussion beside the caveat asking members to consider “not just whether or not to make it possible for writers to join on the basis of self-published works but also the issues that would have to be addressed, such as confirming income, sales, and other publishing information from self-published writers,” seem little more than Chicken Little trying to negotiate with the falling sky.  Here is why.

Primarily, no where in SFWA’s mission statement can we find the words “assure quality,” “guarantee public acceptance,” or “warranty sales quotas.” And, even given the current exclusionary policies in place, none of this happens as-is. Yeah, you read me right. Providing editorial review, artistic critique, copy-editing, cover art, and even blurb writing are not jobs SFWA has signed up to do. They tell members, in good standing and prospective alike, that this is not their job right there in their mission statement. Traditionally published authors and indies must both take this yoke on and ensure that these issues are resolved before publication, or suffer the consequences.

Yet, there are many people who seem to default to the idea that membership qualifies them for some exclusive privilege reserved for the few who surpass a nebulous threshold of quality. Not the case, because if I sell a story to the right people and no one reads it because my story stinks I’ve just disproven this hypothesis. And in this thought experiment, I’m still a SFWA member who could be rubbing elbows with Scalzi and GRRM at some bar at any given convention. And even that doesn’t mean anything since finding drinking buddies at conventions has less to do with what you’ve written or how it was published than who is sitting next to you and what is in your cup.

Notably, other organizations have previously rooted these hazy requirements for membership and the sky has not fallen on them. In fact, they’ve grown significantly as a result. Start with Romance Writers of America if you need an example. Want to know what is required to gain access to their benefits?

General Membership ($95): open to all persons seriously pursuing a romance fiction writing career. Only General members shall have all rights of membership, and only General members shall have the right to vote and the right to hold office in RWA.

That is correct. You writes your story, you pays your dues, you abide by those codes of conduct, and you gets your ticket to the party. “Why then,” you might find yourself asking yourself, “has the same sky RWA shares with SFWA not exploded into a trillion tiny, hot pieces and buried the RWA board under a pyroclastic flow of ashen readers and crap manuscripts?” And the answer is that the board of RWA seems to be in the possession of a couple of critical motes of understanding.

RWA does not pretend to be an arbiter of taste. Rather they stick to their mission statement like an warty, co-dependent, love-sick, fat kid who has, as chance would have it, met the vampire of her dreams. Their writers are what make them better, more writers only means a better organization. Especially when you completely comprehend where the value of the organization resides. The dreamy vampire isn’t valued by the love-sick kid because he’s beautiful, but because he appreciates and defends that diva with all his unearthly, post-death power and bottled rage.

And this relationship will continue to work, despite all the bitchy, bourgeois classmates that will poke at them and criticize them, because ultimately those arbiters of taste don’t have any. They base their value judgements on preconceived and often irrational frameworks such as units sold, agents retained, publishers brown nosed. None of these things have anything to do with the value of the story or the capabilities of the writer. They are distractions, shifting attention away from a job our sexy vampire isn’t supposed to do anyway. RWA gets this, they understand and love their army of undead beefcake.

Becoming Attractive Once More

Love is not attraction. When my youngest son, a three year old with a fiery soul, tosses an amazingly loud, snot encrusted fit because he doesn’t get his way, I still love him although he is not attractive. In that moment, he cannot, nay will not, offer me anything. All economic and political treaties that had been formerly established are null and void, our borders are closed, and we usually end up glaring at one another across a mined DMZ. But, as I look across that no man’s land, I can still see and appreciate him in all his complexity. I love him, even in these moments, but I don’t like him.

It seems to me that SFWA has a similar problem. The organization hasn’t gotten its way. It has convulsed, pitched some serious fits, and even whined in recent memory. And it has lost qualified and capable members as a result (see March 2014).

Yeah sure, it’s not bleeding membership. The whole organization isn’t on the verge of collapse, but much like my three year old, it is continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Go figure. He has been told this a million-million times, “Follow my simple rules and you’ll likely get what you want. Most importantly, do the things you say you’re going to do.”

SFWA’s call for comment seems to me a bit of a whinge. The board of an organization for writers couldn’t write a request without caveats and conditional statements? They’re asking us to tell them what to do? Really? Are they testing the water hoping their members will approve a plan of action they haven’t yet authored? “We’re thinking about make a change, but wanted to know what you guys thought first.” Good grief.

Being a member of a board comes with some responsibilities. One of those is providing leadership, in your role, for the organization. It seems obvious that SFWA board members suspect a need for change. Why haven’t they seized this opportunity then?

Ten minutes with a project plan template, a well informed team of interested and articulate contributors, and a white board should have solved the question of what to do about independent authors. SFWA could have come to its membership holding a bone with some meat on it. They could have outlined the challenge, articulated their logic, and provided a plan of action. What they’ve done isn’t likely to metamorphos into an ugly backlash beast, prickling with indignation. No, not even a little, because that’s what it already is.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. SFWA needs to act like a professional organization, and some of its members need to aspire towards professionalism. Wanting nothing more than to tell the world your story from a tender age does not make you a writer any more than selling a pile of books makes you a professional author. All professionals practice to a level of competence in their field. They don’t let outside concerns or petty squabbles get in the way of the expression of their competence. And that, right there, is attractive. Professionals win people for their side while getting shit done. Now go to your room and think about what I said.

Mars Trac, the Open Source Construction Rover

This morning I made a visit to the post office, sending off twenty printed, signed copies of THE BIG RED BUCKLE to some really excellent engineers doing mankind’s work. “What?” I hear you mumble way over there. It’s pretty simple.

A diverse collection of students at Arizona State University is trying to create an open-source, highly adaptable construction utility that could be used for a variety of purposes here and abroad. And by “abroad” I mean Mars. Imagine a rig, similar to the prototype they want to build, that can be outfitted and modified, on-the-spot, to accomplish anything. Moving great, heaping mounds of freshly manufactured green-house compost on its way to surface garden beds under a domed crater; outfitted with a rudimentary robotic semi-autonomous sensory/navigation rig and an ice mining auger; or oversized “resilient wheels” of spun aluminum, mined and smelted on the red planet, and mounted to the chassis along with a left over fuel tank section of some delivery vehicle and astronauts in the future will have whipped up a Mobile Habitation Module.

When I think of humanity’s future on Mars I don’t see in my mind’s eye a panorama replete with single-purpose designs like this.

That is pretty, and it worked in OBLIVION sure, but only just. Rather, when I imagine that future I see designs that empower the hands that will move them about the fines. These things must be infinitely versatile and interchangeable. And, most importantly, these tools need to be developed now.

Some time ago I had a conversation with a proponent of privatized space ventures. This person came to the table with a gallon glass jug of his favorite kool-aid and proceeded to try and fill everyone’s glass with his favorite flavor. When he got around to pouring it into my cup I stopped him and he asked, “why?” My answer was that I try very hard to remain agnostic about space exploration. “Want to build an orbital space station near Earth? I’m cool with that. Have a pile of private funding to dump into rocket design and manufacture? You go do your thing. Interested in reaching for a piece of mankind’s future on Mars? Hey, I’m on your side. I am an explorer at heart. Not any particular kind of explorer, just a person who really wants to see us all on our way.”

So, with that, I encourage you to go check out Mars Trac‘s Indiegogo campaign. It’s “Flex Funded”, which means the campaign will receive all funds raised even if it does not reach its goal, and that gives the team the freedom to take what you can spare and apply it toward their ultimate goal without fear of coming up short. This my friends is merit incarnate. This is what it looks like when a few dedicated people break the mold and make their dream happen. If you’d like to see more people making things like this, you should go support this campaign. And, as a super cool bonus, you could end up with some really excellent art to read or hang on your wall.