Tuesday, 11 December 2018 20:03

Bringing Ragnarok Dev Diary 8

Phew!

Well, once again, I've gotten bad about blogging. But, while I've slipped with the Dev Diary updates, I've kept working on the actual thing that matters, the manuscript for Bringing Ragnarok, Book 2.

And it is done!

Took a few more days into December than I'd originally planned, but that was more out of a desire to slightly expand and rewrite a couple of the later chapters than discovery of major issues. Book 2 ended up being about 25% longer than Book 1, coming in at a bit under 160,000 words as compared to 120,000 for Book 1. The tone overall is, necessarily, a bit darker and grimmer than Book 1, but hopefully not so much so that it puts readers off.

I actually tend to structure the meta-plot a bit like a symphony, with themes shifting and action rising and falling according to a rhythm of sorts. So while Book 2 is thematically more battle-focused, Book 3 will shift tone again towards exploration (physical and intellectual) and understanding, setting the stage for another more action packed Book 4.

As for actual publication, I haven't chosen anything more specific than 'by the end of December', as I'm not entirely certain when the copyediting will be done and I'll finish any necessary corrections. I'm holding out hope of being done and published before December 31, but just don't want to make any promises just in case something goes strange. It's been quite a rough year on the home front around Broken Wagon Farm, so we're not taking anything for granted until 2018 is dead and done!

On Book 2, I have to say that I'm very excited to publish, and having garnered a number of good ratings on Goodreads and Amazon (more is better, so if you are reading this and enjoyed Book 1, please leave a review and/or rating! It significantly enhances visibility) has been particularly encouraging.

Since December is looking to be a slower month in terms of the amount of formal writing work, I'm hoping to spend some time making maps and appendix materials for each of the three Threads. For 1944, I've got some sketches of big-picture stuff, policy reforms and military reorganizations taken by the Beck government, which would have had quite a task on its hands had it, unlike our reality, actually been able to make Operation Valkyrie a success. For 2041, I want to put together some maps of Post-America, and include some atlas-style sketches of the different successor states to the USA, which broke up (formally) in 2031. And for 2147, I have some diagrammatic maps of Inner Sol, and more descriptions of places and players in the political-economic mix. And history, of course. Lots of timelines and the like.

Of course to actually get this done will require some focus, at a time of the year I tend to have trouble with that. And this year, there's the whole Brexit fiasco occupying my attention. I'm Cascadian, and follow US presidential politics best, but the UK comes as a close second, because in my globalist dreams, all the postcolonial remnants of the British Empire would unite in some kind of loose democratic federation. Anyway, I've found the whole Brexit drama to be high theater, years of ink spilled and negotiations... had... all so that in the end the EU could offer a deal that wasn't quite good enough, so that the UK politicians could say they did all they could, and then force a situation where a second referendum or general election would almost certainly nix the whole thing before it could do any real damage.

But we'll see! The performance seems to be headed down to the wire. Still, I always welcome a chance to put a theory to the test, mine being that inertia will prevail, where it can.

Won't in the United States, though - sorry to all the milquetoast old white liberal types who think some old hack like Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders is the right choice for 2020. The UK already lost its empire, so the dynamics - while mirroring in many ways, remain quite different.

But hey - my Timeline to 2041 assumes that the USA goes into inertia for the rest of the '20s...until the greater earthquake begins.

Published in Blog
Saturday, 17 November 2018 17:56

Bringing Ragnarok Dev Diary 7

Well, life has gotten in the way of regular Dev Diary-ing the past few weeks, so I figure I owe anyone stumbling across the site (or, I can hope, checking in on Bringing Ragnarok Book 2 progress) a quick update.

Simply put, editing is moving along right on schedule, despite the overall word count now pushing past 150,000. I've been hoping to delete sections where I went on too long with all the wordy wording of it all, but I've ended up adding sentences and clarifying points more than I've found things to delete. Hopefully my primary beta-reader will identify some cuts - not that I mind writing a longer book than originally planned (the whole 'series' is one long War and Peace length book in my head anyway, because I want to beat Tolstoy.)

In fact, 1/4 of Book 2 is now with my beta-reader, fully edited to my standard and ready for some external and objective evaluation. The next 1/2 or so has gone through both digital and paper edits, and just needs a few day's work to get that ready for evaluation. Leaving the last 1/4 or so still to go through the full process.

Fortunately, having now physically read and annotated more than 2/3 of the draft, I'm actually feeling a bit excited about publishing at the end of December, because Book 2 is where I think the story really starts to come together. Book 1 is intentionally vignette-y, with chapters growing longer as the narrative proceeds, to evoke the sense of confusion and general weirdness that most new recruits or draftees experience in the early stages of their integration into the military world. Book 2, while still fairly vignette-y, settles down into more of a distinct pattern/rhythm as the Six Friends start to grasp the 'rules' of their new reality, and begin to act on the world intentionally instead of simply experiencing things as they happen.

Part of the reason why I continue to advertise on the term litRPG is that I think this new genre's audience, or at least part of it, will appreciate the effective 'level-up' process that each character goes through as they figure out how to survive in the middle of a war. I don't make this explicit or overt, but it is buried in the narrative as a part of each character's arc. I like to integrate video game metaphors in my writing (and there's a lengthy discussion of war in the context of Starcraft early on), which probably restricts my audience somewhat, but also makes Bringing Ragnarok more approachable to the digital-generations.

Anyway, to sum up - still on track for publication by end of December, 2018. With ongoing encouraging news from my sales, Kindle Direct pagereads, and Goodreads ratings, I'm really starting to hope that this project will earn me a basic living income (minimum wage, at least!) once I can get Book 3 out in Summer 2019, or at the latest by the time Book 4 is published in Winter 2019. Busy times, but busy is how you break in to this world.

Oh, and if you happen to be a Book 1 reader who already read the thing and liked it - please rate and/or review on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever! I'm starting to get a sense of who is reading and in particular who is actually liking the Saga, and I am increasingly hopeful I can turn this into a sustainable business. Six Books done by 2020 is the goal, and then I can start on the next series... that I'm already planning out on paper (because that's how I roll).

Finally - this past week marked the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, that ended the First World War. I wish it had been the War to End all Wars, and not simply a prelude to something worse - and I'm not only referring to the Second World War. The self-inflicted damage to the European-dominated world system in 1914-1918 is still resolving itself. Just as explosives from both conflicts continue to emerge from under fields and development projects, killing people decades, now a full century later, so do the social and political struggles continue, in an age where thousands of nuclear weapons are under the control of right-wing fanatics who want to make them more usable, and the climate is rapidly shifting to a new 'normal', with no mitigation likely before the present world system finally collapses and is replaced in the '30s or '40s.

Published in Blog
Monday, 29 October 2018 22:39

Bringing Ragnarok Dev Diary 6

Well, been a while since I did a Bringing Ragnarok update, so here y'are if you happen to be reading:

Book 2 is now 1/3 edited, and the wordcount has slowly crept up above 141,000. For reference, Book 1 came in at just over 120,000, so I'm already pushing a 20% length increase. Which isn't a bad thing, just worrying: Compressed wordcount induces parsimony in the narrative. Which is a fancy way of saying, when I have a word limit, I get more creative about my word use.

Fortunately I suspect there are several longer passages that can be significantly cut without losing any of the effect or impact. I simply have a tendency to let a character's train of internal thought go on a bit too long, have them mentally narrate a few too many paragraphs of backstory. Which, while many readers are quite tolerant, I want to avoid as a bad habit. As much as I work to create a 'real' world, where what happens is informed as much as possibly by underlying mechanics that are rooted in much of the best of what I've encountered, in the years working on a doctorate, in the many academic disciplines I've investigated.

I could write an actual 'history' for each of the three main Threads, and publish it as a pseudo/fictional history. And by could, I mean that I am capable of sitting down and writing a whole lot of background material into a reasonably interesting technical narrative. In fact, one long-term ambition of mine is to actually do something like that, including supported 'faked' research materials.

At the moment, though, I sketch most of this sort of thing out with pen and paper, often in that pleasant couple of hours after dinner when my mind is wandering towards sleep already. The dreams come easier then, and I am getting in the habit of actually writing it down so I can reference it as I type.

What does that look like? Well, for a sampler, here's a brief Appendix-like Timeline detailing major events leading up to the 2041 storyline, where Kim, Timur, and Patrick are stuck fighting in the middle of a rapidly escalating new phase of the Second American Civil War:

  • 2020 - After two years of increasingly bitter partisan rancor, The United States Presidential Election sees the first return of overt political violence directed by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups against "illegals", which increasingly means anyone not of their ethnic background. Turnout in crucial 'swing' states remains low, and the vote count is further marred by substantiated allegations of foreign interference, resulting in an escalating series of lawsuits that carry the drama well into 2021, where an openly-partisan Supreme Court decision invalidates huge numbers of votes in several vital states.

  • 2022 - A year into the most severe double-dip recession in modern American history, D.C. remains paralyzed by partisan infighting, leaving the States to fend for themselves. Many larger states like California and Texas begin to establish independent foreign relations in order to seek trade agreements that can evade Federal rules and reconnect these states and their home companies to trading markets abroad.

  • 2023 - An escalating series of clashes between Chinese patrol vessels and ships from the Philippine and Vietnamese navies brings a sudden and overwhelming Chinese response, with elements of the People's Liberation Army Navy and Air Force launching strikes against naval and aviation assets in both nations. The United States, despite longstanding guarantees of protection, is too paralyzed to effectively respond, resulting in several aerial and naval clashes but no serious conflict, as many had feared. However, China remains the de-facto controller of the South China Sea, and other nations, while publicly decrying the move, quietly accept the situation.

  • 2024 - The next United States Presidential Election is held in a time of economic stagnation and monetary inflation, leaving vast swathes of the American electorate unemployed or underemployed. Thankfully, violence like that seen in 2020 does not recur, however the collapse of both major political parties across much of the US West results in the first Contingent Election in US history, where a 3rd Party candidate promising non-partisan reform is ultimately selected by Congress after no candidate obtain 270 Electoral College Votes.

  • 2025 - After a minor border dispute spirals out of control, Russian troops simultaneously occupy key districts in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO is unable to respond, with the US now declaring Europe beyond its sphere of influence. A new European joint force is deployed to prevent further hostilities, and along with the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine brings a new 'Iron Curtain' falling across Eastern Europe.

  • 2028 - The current U.S. President runs for re-election, and due to a stabilizing economy and international situation is expected to win re-election against two challengers from the far-left and far-right. On August 26th, 2028, while attending the Party's Presidential Nominating Convention in Miami, Florida, Nuclear weapons detonate almost simultaneously and without warning in Miami, Los Angeles, and Newark, killing tens of thousands of American civilians as well as all members of the line of Presidential Succession down to the Secretary of the Treasury, who narrowly escaped being killed in San Francisco when a U.S. Navy Destroyer spots and shoots down a pair stealthy cruise missiles approaching the area from the Pacific Ocean.

  • 2028 - The 2028 Attacks, which subsequent investigations show were launched by a rogue Air Force officer (James Hollahan) running what amounted to small death cult within the Air Force, results in two rival claimants for the Presidency: Carolyn Pilsudska, Secretary of the Treasury, and Timothy Connor, Secretary of Defense - a close friend and political ally of Hollahan, who himself is soon tapped to be next Secretary of Defense himself. Hollahan-Connor claim to have evidence that Pilsudska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and not the United States, seeking to invalidate her claim.

  • 2028 - On September 1, 2028, United States submarines fire twelve nuclear missiles, a total of three dozen warheads, at suspected nuclear facilities in Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. China and Russia denounce this use of nuclear weapons before investigations can conclude, and media reports indicate that while Pilsudka and Connor agreed on the timing and magnitude of the strikes, neither accepted the right of the other to take action.

  • 2029 - In January, China announces the discovery of the wreckage of an American-made stealthy cruise missile off the coast of California. Returned to China by a submarine observing U.S. Navy exercises in the area, the revelation is immediately claimed to be a hoax by the Connor government.

  • 2029 - On March 15, several dozen United States Air Force Stealth bombers accompanied by unmanned drones fire hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles at sites operated by China's Second Artillery Corps, which maintains control of China's nuclear arsenal. Alleging a plot by China to attack the United States, the Connor government - which ordered the strikes - claims it was acting in self-defense.

  • 2029 - On April 23, the People's Liberation Army Navy announces the blockade of the American military facilities in Okinawa, which was used as a staging base for many of the forces that attacked China's nuclear arsenal. The Connor and Pilsudska teams both claim that this will not be tolerated, but the Connor team now maintains control of access to the Pentagon. Pilsudska, escaping what appears to be an attempt to arrest and contain her, flies with a Secret Service detail to Seattle, Washington.

  • 2029 - On May 30, PLAN forces engage and defeat a fleet of four United States Navy aircraft carriers moving to counter the blockade. Swarms of anti-ship ballistic missiles as well as land, sea, and air-launched cruise missiles are assisted by several dozen conventional submarines acting as mobile mines, who identify the locations of two of the Carriers at the start of the battle, launching torpedoes and calling in the rest of the Chinese forces to engage. In a furious and mutually costly battle, the U.S. Navy is forced to retreat after the U.S.S. Carl Vinson suffers catastrophic, near-fatal damage, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy receives severe damage to its flight deck. Covered by U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. George Washington, the U.S. Navy moves to secure its key base on Guam and the naval supply lines leading back to Pearl Harbor.

  • 2029 - On June 13, the Pilsudska team announces that they hold the Connor government to be illegitimate under the Constitution, and call on all willing governors and military commanders to refuse orders from D.C. California, Oregon, and Washington are the first to comply, and a group of western governors concerned about the possibility of further escalation impacting their civilian populations propose a Constitutional Convention to reform the Federal Government.

  • 2029 - on July 4, units from the 82nd Airborne Division under the direct orders of Secretary of Defense Hollahan, who now in effect holds 'President' Connor as a puppet, land throughout the California Central Valley with orders to secure the state capital at Sacramento, and the California governor. Who responds by ordering all California National Guard units able to mobilize and not engaged in the relief effort in Los Angeles to move to Oregon and join with other Guard and regular military units whose commanders have chosen to back Pilsudska.

  • 2029 - on July 9, advance elements of the 82nd Airborne Division encounter a militia unit holding a bridge over the Sacramento River in Redding, California. This unit, whose members are largely drunk, fire on the advancing vehicles, thinking them to be part of the California Guard. Before local commanders can sort out the situation, orders come down from Hollahan to treat Redding as under enemy control, and to seize the bridges supported by artillery strikes, which subsequently devastate much of the town and spark the first skirmish between American military units, when a CNG battalion covering the retreat engages the 82nd Airborne's advance elements, thinking themselves under attack.

  • 2029 - on September 25, Pilsudka loyalists defeat an attack by several brigades from the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions under Hollahan's control, using the rugged terrain and narrow mountain passes to inflict heavy casualties, while preventing air support from making it over the mountains. In the wake of this victory of the California, Oregon, and Washington National Guard Units supported by a Stryker brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and aviation assets from the Navy and National Guard, Pilsudska claims all military forces in the Pacific to be under her command.

  • 2029 - on October 22, Pilsudska forces seek to push back through Redding on their way to liberate Sacramento. Hollahan orders a nuclear strike to halt their advance, one missile with three warheads launched from a silo in North Dakota annihilating the remains of the town in a nuclear firestorm. Pilsudska orders a nuclear reply to match, a single warhead launched from a ballistic missile submarine outside of Puget Sound that detonates over the Sacramento International Airport, where Hollahan's forces have established a major base.

  • 2029 - on October 23, A surprise Russian nuclear attack is launched against the ICBM fields in North Dakota as well as the fields in Colorado and Kansas. Six hundred nuclear warheads destroy the bulk of the American land-based arsenal, sending plumes of radioactive fallout across the Midwest and into the Rust Belt. Immediate casualties are low given the relative isolation of the missile fields, however a vast swath of the American heartland is contaminated by radiation, and in several cities fallout strikes vulnerable populations, killing tens of thousands and forcing millions more to become refugees...

There you have it! A nice, depressing look at, I'm afraid, a plausible future leading to Post-America. As you go out to vote this coming election day, keep this dark future in mind.

Published in Blog

Bringing Ragnarok: Book 2, is written!

I don't usually give myself, you know, 'kudos' or whatever. But I will state my pride in having written a 140,000 word book in 15 weeks. Although I had hoped to have the draft complete by September 30, the extra length took it two weeks into October. Still, that's not a bad weekly average, especially considering that there have been other life matters to attend to during these months, as 2018 is the year that just won't stop giving when it comes to major life-changing events.

Now, as I write in an earlier Developer Diary for Bringing Ragnarok, a completed draft does not equal a publishable book. I mean, yes, there are plenty of indie authors on Amazon who do appear to be comfortable with publishing a 1st-draft, and many appear to make a good living doing it. Story > grammar, in most cases - at least in the mind of the average reader on Amazon, if sales in a number of indie-friendly categories are any indication.

I'm too much of a perfectionist not to at least try to make each paragraph and sentence as good as it can be. There is a point where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, as is said, and a person could go on editing indefinitely and never actually publish anything. In life, I try to remain mindful of tradeoffs - in an imperfect universe, these almost always exist. Doing something means not doing something else, because time and energy are scarce/limited. So it is important, I feel, to realize when something is 'good enough', that is, the flaws that remain - and you can find them in any work, even one you love - don't bug the majority of people who encounter them. In many cases, one person's marring flaw is another's shining star.

But for me, the 1st draft is just that: The 1st draft. I am fortunate in that about a decade of academic writing has given me the ability to pump out a decent bit of writing without intensive editing - blog posts like this, for example, I type out and skim once to correct obvious defects, then hit publish. The result is usually readable, and gets my points across, though often I go on and on and on and on and on without actually saying anything substantial. Tangents are a problem for me, always have been.

So back to the meat of the post: I have 140,000 words of fiction, taking the Six Friends further down their journey into the metaphysical war that ends in Ragnarok: the Apocalypse, Norse style, as I tag it in my Amazon ads. There's some pretty dark stuff in here, but also lighthearted bantering conversations and philosophical arguments about how Starcraft is actually a decent model for the essence of war and warfare, when you boil things down to the Vespene Gas of it all. The next stage of the project is the intensive surgery: While my 1st drafts usually get the basic plotline and sequence of events down, they usually lack (in my opinion) when it comes to dialog and parsimonious description. The latter being a 10-cent word that here essentially means: describe the hill, its vegetation, color, location, and immediate relevance. Do not go all Tolkien, and make the hill a character unto itself. Hills are interesting objects of study, to be sure, but most people are content to have characers simply move over the damn hill, and not discuss the entire history of its origins and occupants.

I mean, okay, I do in fact tend to to exactly this, and much of the point of the story is to write about history in a way that the actual people and events appear real, tangible, believable. To portray history from the perspective of people stuck in it, though unlike most of us they have/gain the ability to impact and even guide it. Because it wouldn't be much of a story if it were about people just, you know, farming a plot or something. As much as I enjoy Harvest Moon, I can't imagine writing a story about it, no matter how much I like to pull in aspects of litRPG into my tale.

Aside from this blurb, not much else to write about. I'm still on-track for a late December release of Bringing Ragnarok: Book 2 on Amazon, and hope to have pre-order set up. I'm also looking at getting Book 1 (and 2) set up for on-demand print distribution through Amazon, which is pretty easy and serves those who like a physical book to read (I'm one of them, in fact.). All with a mind towards sitting down from January - April and writing Book 3, which I'm very much looking forward to (a sign I've finally struck on the right career choice, methinks), especially because Books 1 and 2 (the first 'movement', in my symphonic way of thinking about plot structure) do so much to set the scene, and Books 3 and 4 will progress/go deeper in from there.

As for the rest of the world - meh. America's right-wing now has full control of all 3 branches of government, and has sold itself to a conman who seeks a racial nationalist state in place of the America we have. Democrats will likely retake the House this November, but not the Senate, so their resistance will remain ineffectual. And the current Oval Office occupant (not my President, never my President, as he has committed treason by threatening the peaceful transfer of power) continues to lay the foundation for a voter suppression + electoral college + supreme court effort to control D.C. for another 4 years... or more. Oh, and the IPCC has released a new report, pointing out the obvious fact that if the species doesn't get its act together, like, fifteen years ago, we're going to inhabit a very different planet in the very near future. To top it all off, the failure to fix the global financial system after 2008, coupled to these moronic trade wars, coupled to the US basically exiting the global international system it built, are fixing to throw a nasty recession in the near future.

In short, it remains a good time to be writing dystopian fiction. In my 2041, a limited Russia-US nuclear exchange has destroyed the Corn and Rust Belts, the USA has broken up into a whole set of successor states, and people are already abandoning vulnerable coastal areas in the Southeast, which nobody will insure anymore. I base this dystopic Post-American future on an extrapolation of current trends, as I see them, backed by a long study into the mechanics of human society and a theory I've developed, rooted in a merging of postmodern philosophy and systems theory, that I think explains why Western Civilization goes through cycles of collapse and destruction, some (like 1914-1945) rather destructive. And by 2147, after more than a century of rapid climate change, the solution Earth's 'experts' and 'technocrats' who end up running the planet decide, according to their ideological assumptions about why the world went the way it did, to the violent exile of 2/3 of humanity (the poorer two-thirds) to space 'habitats'.

After Bringing Ragnarok is done circa 2020, I hope to turn to writing something more positive, hopeful, space opera-y. A successor to the great sci-fi of the late 90s like Babylon 5, Stargate, and Star Trek. A story about people building a united galactic civilization in order to stave off a great Plague.

But for now, the times call for dystopian fiction. If politicians continue to prove themselves incapable of rising to the challenges posed by the great changes that are coming, then it will fall on regular folks to pick up the pieces and carry on.

As always.

Published in Blog
Sunday, 30 September 2018 18:36

Bringing Ragnarok, Dev Diary 4

Well, the end of September has arrived, and with it, my target deadline for finishing the initial draft of Bringing Ragnarok Book 2.

While I'm not quite there yet, I actually came within a half-day's worth of writing of reaching the 120k word budget I'd set for the draft. Which I call a win, given that it will take at least another ~15,000 words to finish out Book 2, as I've gone (again) over my word budget on several chapters. I'll aim to trim the total during editing, but as often as not I find my wordcount increasing post-edits, because places where I trim unnecessary explanation or dialogue are more than matched by places where I add either or both.

Regardless, I'm still looking good for a late-December release, as the draft will be fully completed by mid-October, allowing line edits (round 1) to commence. Which will take about a month (I go approx. 3x faster on edits than in writing the initial draft, for reasons that are probably obvious), followed by another month of edits (two rounds) done with pen and paper, including the time my primary beta reader spends adding her own suggestions/fixes.

Still, most definitely, a compressed timeline, but this is where all the research I did prior to starting Book 1 really pays off, because much of the plot is already pre-determined by the stuff I've laid out so far. Part of why I characterize Bringing Ragnarok as a saga, and not a novel, is that as something intended to be pseudo-historical, there are limitations on what characters can do or experience. Novels - and this is why I actually read more non-fiction than fiction, fall prey to making points, or engaging in too much wish-fulfillment. One of by biggest irritations with storytelling is scenes that seem too contrived, where the characters suddenly act out of their normal bounds, without any real justification other than the creator went a little too much into god-mode, and failed to question how much of their own perspective is intruding on that of their characters.

Now, funny that I write this now, because this week I wrote a chapter that, in many ways, is right at the heart of what Bringing Ragnarok is all about. Without giving too much away (if anyone even reads this, of course) - many of the events that take place in Bringing Ragnarok 1 and 2 are structured to produce this particular chapter. It is a chapter that I sincerely hope will, in effect, 'bring the war home' - put violent conflict into a frame of reference that many people will relate to. As such, there's definitely a 'point' to the chapter - as there is to the entire saga.

Which naturally puts me at risk of doing exactly what I hate that other authors do - putting some characters 'on rails', forcing them through a situation just to make some author's point. An intrusion into the story. My hope, though, is that I've avoided falling into the usual traps, by setting up the situation such that the reader will recognize (at least after reflection) why the chapter was essential to the plot, why the events that occur are both foreseen and foreseeable, that is, events transpire in a logical manner, true to how similar events have occurred throughout the history of violent conflict on Earth.

I worry that this won't be well-received primarily because, in America, we've largely been trained to ignore subtlety and relevance in our media. It goes beyond all clickbait 'news' and pseudo-science, straight down to how American writers seem to like to tell stories.

I've actually reached the point that I'll almost always prefer to watch a TV show or read a story from the UK, over one from America. When I look at my bookshelf, most of the fiction I love the most was written by UK authors. Tolkien, Rowling, Adams, Lewis - these authors have inspired me far more than almost every American contemporary, save for Twain and Steinbeck. And when we sit down to watch a tv show, I will take even the most slow-paced, boring UK product over almost any of the popular American shows.

The reason for this is that something terrible has happened, again in my opinion, to the tradition of storytelling in America. What the American media has done to Tolkien in particular simply disgusts me.

In his legendarium, both the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wanted to write a story that was deeply philosophical, concerned with ethics, filled with characters living a totally different kind of life than we collectively live in this strange 'modern' age. He did not write what Americans call 'fantasy' ('faerie' in the UK has very different context), and in fact would have probably called his work 'science fiction' if he were living in America today.

Even more than that, Tolkien was writing what amounts to a meditation on death. Lord of the Rings in particular is entirely about death. Why people risk it, what they risk it for, and how many of them fear it above all else. Power plays a vital role in Lord of the Rings, and is an extremely potent force - but in the end, the problem with power is that it gives the powerful the illusory ability to control, even escape, death. Sauron is not a mindless force of evil, not a disembodied eye that just randomly hates all things for no apparent reason. Sauron is a demi-god, one of the creators of our world, but whose fundamental flaw is an inability to accept his own long-term irrelevance to the unfolding of the saga of the world. Sauron seeks permanent power, an escape from the confinements of reality set by his creator - he seeks that same level of godhood. As such, he is a god to his slaves, and seeks to make all things his slaves, in order to sustain his own permanent (and privileged) existence in Arda.

None of this makes it through the Americanisation of Tolkien. Peter Jackson and his collaborators produced an excellent version of Lord of the Rings - provided you are willing to accept it being shorn of all deeper meaning and relegated to an endless hack-and-slash festival. I am not, and my experience with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy - and even more so with the abysmal Hobbit spinoffs - has left me with exactly zero hope for the next iteration of America's cultural inability to see deeper meaning in anything, its obsessive need to tear down anything bearing a hint of subtlety and craft. 

This next iteration will apparently be an Amazon product. Which doesn't in and of itself mean that it will suck, and I'm not part of the anti-Amazon crowd at all. But just because Jeff Bezos owns something, does not mean that it'll end up being actually run/produced by someone with the right qualifications.

Truth be told, there are only a few people in this world who have those right qualifications, which so far as I'm concerned represent a true respect for the original author. But Americans, well, can they truly get past their own narrow cultural bullshit to produce something Tolkien would have felt carried on his work - something he specifically hoped would happen?

I'm very, very doubtful. And even if the writers have the best of intentions, American media executives think their audience is stupid. And so feeds them stupid material. I strongly suspect that two male writers on Lord of the Rings will simply double down on the hack 'n slash aspects, bring in a few attractive women to pretend that they care about the female audience, and continue the longstanding (and wrong!) tendency to portray all heroes in Lord of the Rings as pale white folks, and the bad guys as dark-skinned. Which is absolutely wrong, given that in Middle-Earth, just like in real Earth, people migrated and mixed for thousands of years without much respect to skin color or ethnicity. Most paleo-Europeans were actually quite dark-skinned, and the later influx of 'white' genetics stems from the migration of Indo-European peoples over thousands of years, who disproportionately had whiter skin as a result long living in modern-day Russia (not terribly sunny).

There is a way (are ways) to write an epic Lord of the Rings story, suitable for an audience that is sophisticated enough to enjoy Dr. Who, Man in the High Castle, Breaking Bad, and all the other new and innovative series we've seen emerge over the past ten years or so. I can easily imagine a true-to-the-source-material on-screen version of Lord of the Rings, that moves past the fantasy stereotypes that have been foisted onto Tolkien's work, and actually explore the ideas and meanings he was himself so interested in. I could easily write a Lord of the Rings done like, say, a multi-year episodic series like Broadchurch, that actually explores locations, peoples, and all the beauty of Middle Earth, with a diverse cast, that would be more true-to-Tolkien than the white male fantasy I'm afraid - like the Star Trek movie the writers of this new Amazon LotR series wrote - this new series will become.

Truth be told, about the only person I'd trust to do Tolkien right is... well, me, pretty much. Because I've read everything he's written, multiple times. I feel I understand - and support - the vision he and his son Christopher Tolkien sought to bring to the world, even after JRR Tolkien's death. Not that it matters, because I'll never be granted the opportunity, under the present ownership structure, to prove I'm right.

But if whatever gods may be (and care) grant me success in my own work, I promise this: if the time comes that I can ever acquire the rights to Lord of the Rings, some day in the distant future after American media culture has done its best to, Orc-like, profane anything it can't understand, I will do so, and bring to the world a vision of Middle Earth in all its splendor and depth, true to the vision of Tolkien and his heirs.

Published in Blog
Sunday, 16 September 2018 18:36

Bringing Ragnarok, Dev Diary 3.5

Well, got my first drive-by review on Amazon this week. Even better: it's probably by some dude on the alt-right! (read, Nazi sympathizer.)

Amazon has serious problems with its review system. Deep in the underbelly of the indie author world, there's widespread recognition that there exists a subset of internet trolldom that actively looks for stuff to slander. Some of it is the usual gamergate nonsense: men mad that popular books feature female leads. Some of it is political: MAGA-types and other neo-Nazis think their moment has come, and are looking to attack anyone and anything that doesn't fit into their blood and soil vision for America (read, America for the whites, and especially the christian males). And some of it is authors, who see a competitor in their category and try to damage its visibility.

Having worked professionally in the world of reviews, I know that this seedy underbelly of the internet is a constant problem for sellers and marketplaces alike. Just as Facebook and Twitter are now confronting how their platforms are used by neo-Nazis and other hate groups, so are Apple and Amazon. Now, in reality, long term, this activity doesn't in fact normally do much damage to a committed author/seller. Reviews come in time, and even a bad review is actually useful - people like to know the 'cons' of a work, and if most of the cons written come from the voice of someone who appears to have an axe to grind, people who read them are actually prone to then view the product more positively. Subconsciously, they think 'huh, that's all the criticism they've got? And are more likely to see what the deal is, maybe even give it a read.

Overall, reviews are widely known to be of limited value, and they're totally broken when it comes to pure monetary utility. The average product rating, once it has a sufficient number of reviews, is right about 4 stars. 4.2 is the number I used to hear as the typical average, back when I worked for a start-up in Silicon Valley. Which, incidentally, set up its business model around providing review widgets... and went under in just a few years. Businesses found that reviews are good to have (promote buyer confidence), but you have to actively moderate them and interact if you want real results. The cost of paying people to do that interaction must outweigh the benefits, though, because most - like Amazon - use mostly automatic filters that look for certain signals (use of swearing, posting contact information, stuff algorithmically tractable), and actively human-moderate only a select subset (flagged automatically or by users).

But for an independent author or merchant, the nature of the Amazon ecosystem (Apple likely works the same, I just have no experience there) disproportionately boosts the impacts of negative reviews, especially when a book has only a few to begin with. Amazon lives and breathes by getting shoppers to what they want to buy as quickly as possible. The ordering of search results (like with web searches) is extremely important. Amazon uses an algorithm (an equation, incorporating multiple signals/variables, like your and other similar buyers shopping history, as one example) to predict the all-important matter of relevance - whether the product is likely to be what the user is looking for. Using star ratings as a metric feeding the algorithm's decision about relevance means that a new author who gets hit by a drive-by review, is harmed more than a more established author.

I have to anticipate that my current steady stream of sales will drop off for a while, until other readers write reviews (and given what I'm seeing on Goodreads and hearing from my beta readers, they'll come and be solid), because of the newness of my book. Which is frustrating and demoralizing, when the apparent reason for the review is something non-pertinent to the actual product, like say the writer's politics.

I assert that the 2-star (why only 2? Makes a person seem like they are being reasonable. The alt-right understands propaganda. Thanks, Goebbels.) rating that prompted this blogpost (you can go look at it on Amazon if you would like) is politically motivated for the following reasons:

  • Writer is anonymous, but clicking the 'Amazon Customer link' shows a review history and wish list oddly fascinated with fascism... and not in the proper 'how to kill this disease' kind of way. One praises a book about Hitler's bodyguard unit, the infamous 1st SS Panzer Division, as being 'unbiased'. That same term, or variations, is used by several reviewers of the book in question. Which is a long-used term by Third Reich apologists and Waffen SS fans intended to mean 'we don't go deep into the atrocities. Just stick to the tank-on-tank action, please). Other of his reviews are tied to the usual anti-liberal stuff alt-right types are into. Right wing 'libertarian' writers, fascist thinkers, and the like. I'm not into doxxing, but Anonymous and Antifa have shown these trolls do exist, intentionally target certain products and ya gotta point 'em out when you find them even if Amazon isn't likely to do anything about the issue.
  • Writer offers no comment on specific aspects of what he disliked, just expresses hatred of the plot, pacing, characters, and cover - after asserting he made it halfway through the book. On one hand, I have to commend that level of tenacity. I can usually tell if I'm going to hate a book after the first chapter, which you can freely read right on the Amazon landing page. To go ~60,000 words into one before coming to that conclusion is either down to dedication (whatever the motive) or, well... let's just say that either reading comprehension is lacking, or he was really, really hoping Eryn would go back to 1944 and join the Reich.
  • Use of the royal 'we' generally implies the writer has a specific audience in mind. Usually, when people invoke a vague generality like "We've seen this kind of thing before" they and their audience knows what the speaker means. That's the mark of a tribe member telling another tribe member in their own secret language that something they consider socially unacceptable is afoot. Those sorts of dog whistles are how white supremacy has remained a problem in society. Someone throws out a Nazi salute, you know where they stand. Harder when they use euphemisms and tribal appeals.

So why am I spending so much time detailing this? Perhaps, it is just an author's fragile ego reeling at a poor review, you might think. You are free to! Perhaps you are right. And yet... I have received immense amounts of criticism on my writing, non-fiction and fiction alike. This one stands out, in part because when I first started writing Bringing Ragnarok, I made choices that I knew would result in this happening. I was not at all surprised when I saw that review, or when (for market research, trying to figure out who does and doesn't like the work) I looked through his review history.

Look, Gamergate trolls, alt-right misogynists - they exist. They are threatened by the fact that the patriarchy - also a real thing - is slowly (at last) crumbling. In this historic process, I know what side I'm on.

Bringing Ragnarok is being written as, is intended to be, postcolonial and feminist science fiction. There are more women leads than men, and no, they aren't really concerned about romance when the end of the world is at hand. They are not all in 'healing' positions, either: they are (end up) generals, soldiers, pilots, insurgents, and strategists. Hell, by the time we're talking about the 22nd century, gender isn't even a particularly relevant term anymore, as people and intelligent machines both exist, and there are many hybrids - BioMods, colloquially, who start to play a bigger role in Book 2, and whose genders are... well, whatever they want them to be.

Most of the characters, too, are non-white and, to the degree possible, not originally western. They are mostly culturally Western, but this is presented as a legacy of colonialism and colonization (hah, mixed Commonwealth and US English again. I like both.), and not as something they like or want. Yari and Loucas are both from Puerto Rico, and no, they aren't children of poverty (well, Yari was adopted from Haiti as a child, but after that, firmly middle-class), they're children of scientists. Timur is Punjabi, was a child soldier in South Asia, but his upbringing was also solidly Indian middle class. Kim is from Jakarta, Indonesia, and is mostly (but not entirely) of Chinese descent. Patrick may be from Canada (Estonia before that), but the fact that he's married to a Canadian Forces fighter pilot will rankle the alt-right types all the same. The only white-bread character, Eryn, goes to 1944 Germany - a place and time where women weren't exactly (normally) allowed to do real political or military work.

I like multifaceted characters of complex origin who end up being fish out of water, then learn to cope. I prefer to write from the perspective of people who are, relative to their surroundings, subalternPart of my objective in writing this story is to reclaim the topic of war from the dominion of old white men. I use old European myths as a way to deconstruct the Christian Anglo-Saxon worldview of the past two millenia, while restoring women to their proper, traditional place in the world: coequal with men in all things.

And I like to tell a story that deals critically (I was a critical geographer, after all) colonialism, empire, and resistance against both. Which, y'know, was what Tolkien was really after, too, what with the whole 'throw the Ring of Power into the fire' plot. He was no pro-Churchill colonialist. And he too had to deal with Nazism impacting his fiction readership.

Like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1930's and 1940s, we live in a time of great change, but also the dogged persistence of old evils. I see Nazism as a cancer on human society, one that is always present, always a danger, but generally only rears up and gains strength, Sauron-like (or Voldemort-like, if you prefer), under certain circumstances. Probably 20% of people, across the world, hold some level of Nazi/alt-right (they boil down to the same thing, in the end) sympathies. People forget, but in the Second World War, most Americans saw the fight against Japan as more important, and not only that, a majority of them polled in approval of genocide against Japan. Many Americans were fine with Hitler, and saw in him the 'final solution' to the 'problem' of blackness. Eugenics, racism, virulent hatred of the other are deeply embedded in the DNA of America. Part of the tragedy of Trumpism is that these filth have gained a far greater voice than ever should have happened - ever would have happened if America's federal system still worked like the Founders intended.

Many people have debated whether Trump is Hitler, Mussolini, or something else - truth is, he's Hitler with an American paint job. One of the thing the weirds me out the most in the news these days is the liberal/neoliberal meme of Trump being crazy, stupid, senile, whatever. He is, but this isn't particularly relevant anymore, now that he has power. Like Hitler in the '30s, he now holds a position of authority and can't be easily removed. If he wants to launch a nuke, nothing but the military directly disobeying his orders (which I hope for, but also fear - this would effectively be a coup, and a blow against American democracy) would stop him. Impeachment is unlikely, unless leading Democrats and Republicans decide President Pence isn't simply the same basic nightmare in less Twittery-clothing. Democrats are already playing at nominating an old white dude like Joe Biden to be the shoe-in in 2020 that they thought Clinton was in 2016 (people forget how happy they were that the GOP nominated Trump!). They fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Trumpist threat. They've forgotten how power works. Largely, because they don't personally suffer when they lose.

In 2020, you will see an election featuring two vicious primary campaigns, allegations of Russian election interference, and even higher levels of voter suppression in key states than normal. The stakes will be very high, and Trump has every incentive to fight as dirty as he can to remain in office. He'll need to double-down on his base of old white racists. He already alleged in 2016 that he wouldn't respect the outcome if it didn't go his way, so why would he do any differently in 2020? Couple this to the relentless attacks on the media, incitement of violence, allegations that the Dems and Libs are manipulating all information...

Just remember this: the idiot-in-chief can be insane, and still hold on to power, so long as the elites around him dither about playing their own power games, and trust that the mad idiot will respect the system in the end. Such a twit as Trump can literally fail his way into a position of permanent authority, and then wreak havoc according to his Constitutional powers to do so, because Congress has allowed them to accumulate in the executive branch for far too long. That's why Trump is more Hitler than anyone cares to believe - Hitler was mad, and yet able to take Germany down the path to total war and annihilation. Are America's crumbling institutions capable of withstanding such a threat? And even if Trump dies or gets impeached, will Pence - who signed onto his administration, after all - not use the massive power now in the hands of the executive branch? Remember: we live in a world full of nuclear weapons. That have never been adequately supervised or controlled as well as the Pentagon would like the world to believe...

Time will tell. But me, looking ahead and seeing great chaos and misery, I'm writing a dystopian war story for the people of my generation who have to deal with the consequences of this political disaster, which really does amount to a simmering civil war among the Baby Boomers stuck in the Sixties, who are clinging to power even as they lose the intellectual capability to wield it (if they ever had it). I'm writing a story for people who are more Antifa than alt-right, who actually believe in getting up and doing something, building things, to roll back this tide of oppression sweeping across the world - not just in the US, but all the hell over.

I am, personally and professionally, at war with Nazis and Nazism. I write to earn $ to live on, then, gods willing, accumulate surplus to invest in some kind of formal organization that can help other people have a piece of whatever success I am granted, to grow a movement capable of building something better. I'm writing a modern work that is feminist and postcolonial even at the same time it engages in world-building to power a piece of speculative fiction that I hope will be popular and last. Because we're at a point in human history when we badly need a new Axial age, new ideas, understanding, and even myths, if we're to deal with what is coming.

So here's hoping there are enough readers of progressive, feminist, postcolonial speculative fiction written by a white autistic dude, more Buddhist and Norse than Christian, to get things a-going. If that's you, well - check out Bringing Ragnarok. Post on forums. And write me some reviews!

Published in Blog

It probably seems like a dumb thing for an author to ask, after publishing a book. Especially when he intends the book to be first in a series, and hopes to actually earn a living as a professional, independent author.

But the question has been much on my mind, of late (yeah, I often slip into Middle-Earth English/pseudo-formalism): Who are my readers?

Part of me (the more autistic part) says that's a dumb question because, in time, it effectively answers itself. As N grows, a cluster will form (so goes the theory, anyway). And it'll be similar enough to other clusters that I'll know what to call the thing.

Another part of me (the more pragmatic part) says it's a dumb question because I should have answered it before writing the book. Much harder to figure out how to market a book when you don't even know for certain what genre it best fits into.

And a final part of me (the anxious part) calls it a dumb question because it is irrelevant: too few people will ever read the thing for the question to matter.

*Can I just say how terrible an idea it is to actually learn practiced philosophy? That is, how to construct theories which can then be subjected to scientific evaluation? I was already a P on the Meyers-Briggs scale, but too  many years in academia broke my ability to just ask and answer a damn question without digging into the deeper meaning of it all... *sigh*

Fortunately for me, I also live and breath data analysis, and I've been using the Amazon advertising system as a sort of sensor this past couple months. All in all, I'm inclined to stick with the autistic part of my brain on this one, because I can effectively accelerate how quickly I get a cluster by selectively boosting my visibility to readers in different categories, then compare them.

Which is a jargony way of saying that I can, by buying adds, put a summary of Bringing Ragnarok in front of specific readers, based on what they're looking at on Amazon. So if I type in, say, Octavia Butler on Amazon.com, and specify 'Kindle Store' as category, when the list of top results comes up, I can place the cover image and short description of Bringing Ragnarok on this page (well, normally later pages, since position is a function of how much $ you bid, with front-page bids on popular categories costing up to $0.90 or even more (average is 0.40-0.60).

 

octavia butler screenshot


What this can tell me, when I do it across a bunch of different keywords (mostly author and genre names), is how readers interested in different types or styles of fiction respond to seeing my ads. Amazon shows me how many impressions (times displayed) I get by keyword or category, and how many times readers actively clicked on them. In theory, the relative ratio of impressions to clicks (average based on my experience and some internet reading is 1 click per 1000 impressions) gives an indication of how viewers in a particular category judged the ad as relevant enough to their interests to click on. The click to buy ratio, on the other hand, tells how many of those reader clicks actually converted into a sale. Which in theory tells you, more or less, if the information available on the landing page was sufficient to convince them to buy the book (within 2 weeks, which is how long Amazon tracks a click-sale connection). Some selected examples below:

Ads performance screencap

clicks 20 days

 

Ads performance screencap

Now, this is actually pretty crude so far as information goes. A high impression-click ratio may just mean the ad made a browsing shopper curious, which may be totally unconnected to whether they would buy the book, or even wanted to buy anything (people browse out of pure curiosity). And the really crucial buyer decision, the part that makes them go from reading the landing page to shelling out their wages for my book, is totally invisible. Obviously, you hit on a category where you get tons of clicks that convert better than 5:1 to sales, because at $0.50 a click for a book priced at $3.99, assuming the ratio holds as you scale up, you literally have a money-generating machine, even if (after Amazon takes their cut) you only, under this scenario, net $0.20/sale. Small numbers multiplied many times make very big numbers, which pay off student loans (if the dream comes true).

But hitting that magic category is unlikely, at least, not until an author has at least 3-4 books out, which apparently has a tendency to both improve the initial click-to-sale ratio, and (assuming the writing doesn't piss of the readers) generate sales from later books in the series. And even then, there's the niggling problem of figuring out exactly what categories are worth spending ad money on, and what ones aren't.

That's the thing the don't tell you about statistics, until you've taken enough courses. The hard numbers of it all remain totally reliant on having good theory to tell you what's actually important. Unfortunately, social sciences theory hasn't really advanced in about 150 years, and remains mired in the rut of the Greco-Roman European philosophical tradition. So a huge amount of 'good' (peer-reviewed, highly cited) social science work (political science, economics, sociology) is deeply misconceived, because what theories are seen as 'acceptable' by the community in question determines the outcome of the peer-review process, and so you have a system of 'knowledge production' so deeply bound to entrenched patriarchial and elitist cultural values that I really doubt the institution can ultimately be saved...

Ahem.

So basically, key to the whole idea of being an independent author, is figuring out how to most efficiently acquire paying readers, which is usually best done (unless you're a big book company able to pay millions in ads for a crappy product, but you got it on Oprah so people will by it just because of the halo effect... ) by finding out who really really likes your work, then figuring out how to get more people like them to see it.

And so far, I'm not entirely certain who those readers will be, for me. In my head, there's a set of 'tastes' that I think Bringing Ragnarok will appeal to, which I've listed out in the 'From the Author' section on my Amazon landing page. But in my head there's also the more difficult question of what demographic my work might appeal to.

I am proud of the fact that I'm writing unabashedly feminist fiction. Yes, I am a white male (cisgender, heterosexual, married, white, anglo-saxon, all the privilege categories except old (yet) and christian (anymore), and the cat pictures aren't intended to hide that fact, I just don't like having my picture taken at all, and don't see why anyone would care what I look like. But, see, all my life, I've never been able to figure out why the hell people were so caught up about women being able to do the same stuff as men. Like, duh, women are people too. Just people. Most of what we see as gender difference is a result of social training, not some sort of fundamental qualities that vary according to gender. Of course, women should have equal rights and equal pay. Um, duh. Why would it be otherwise, except that in the past a bunch of men figured out that it'd be handy to set up social rules that dispossess women? ['cause there's always more for everyone if you redefine who qualifies as 'someone', hence that being, historically, the fundamental objective of most hard-right groups.]

But I am also writing hard social science fiction with a strong military component, coupled to a re-imagining of Norse mythology that gives the goddesses like Freyja and Idunn their proper due. And if you look on Amazon at the categories that might seem relevant, I think you'll notice pretty quickly that the authors are mostly men.

I can't help but wonder if this is because there are unwritten rules in the science fiction fan community, that make it more difficult for a female author to 'make it'. And I wonder if, with that, comes a tendency among women who are looking for stories like those typically found in military science fiction and space opera, you know, epic stuff, to look for it in other categories. Obviously, many women don't care that much, or else we wouldn't (finally!) be seeing a female Doctor, female Jedi in Star Wars, and hopefully many more to come!

Still, because I have to work in a world of tight margins, I need as efficient a 'channel' to readers interested in epic, sprawling stories with a ton of world building, metaphysical strangeness, and characters who are just regular schmoes - even the gods. And over the past couple months, I've been using ads to get a sense of where, relatively speaking, those readers who particularly want to read about strong female protagonists who pretty much do the same stuff men do, like to hang out on Amazon.

It is an ongoing process, which I do probably too much when not (as I did this week, hooray) making steady progress towards completing Bringing Ragnarok Book 2 by end of September-first week in October (certain sections have lengthened, pushing estimated word count to 130,000).  And I've had some interesting signals, both positive and negative:

  • litRPG and gamelit, which I didn't even know existed until I started doing this, so far have proven the steadiest click-getters and sale-getters. I have no problem with this, though I do wonder if there are genre requirements that make Bringing Ragnarok less of a good fit than it might seem. Many books in this world appear to rely on listing out statistics, and having characters be aware of their living in a video game, .hack/ style. While I prefer to keep this kind of stuff under the hood, non-explicit, I do in fact have a defined progression for the characters, who gain skills and experience as they survive their respective wars (and the meta war looming over everything). I am an avid gamer, and I incorporate many tropes and references from games. And I know for a fact that many, many women enjoy playing games - including war games. Just doesn't get written about in the media as much - probably because introverts like me don't actually talk about what games we play all that much :)
  • Speculative fiction, at least on Amazon, almost seems to be code for 'science fiction with women.' I find it interesting to see how many books there are ones I myself have read, but thought were science fiction through-and-through. Makes me wonder even more about whether women get driven to different categories than men, even if they essentially like the same underlying stories. After all, there were certainly women listening to the skalds sing poetry in the old Germanic world...
  • Military science fiction and military fiction are very hard categories to crack, despite my focus on military affairs. Actually, one of by big 'points' in Bringing Ragnarok is that women go to war too. And not just as doctors, nurses, or other healers. America in point of fact badly lagged even the Soviet Union in incorporating women into all brances of service, including combat arms. Israel has always conscripted women. And the more I read the old Norse sagas and Germanic epics, the more references I catch to women showing up on battlefields, and this being seen as totally normal by the people who later told the stories. There are many, many women in this world who choose a warrior's path, just like men. People are people. But do women who like to read stories about women (and men, of course) fighting in a war, read in different categories than men? I think they probably do, because too many men fail to write believable female perspective characters. And if maleness is an unofficial prerequisite for popularity in the genre...

Final thought: I recently discovered Goodreads, and was pleasantly surprised to see people actually saying they are reading Bringing Ragnarok! Encouragement to get back to working on Book 2!

Published in Blog
Saturday, 08 September 2018 18:09

Bringing Ragnarok Dev Diary 2.5

So Labor Day 2018 hit, and American politics emerged from the August slumber.

I find it amusing how media across the ideological spectrum perceives its own internal organizational metabolism as synonymous with the rest of the world's. August is often referred to as a quiet month in the world of news, but in truth August is just (like December in the West) when the staff of media companies goes on vacation, so big names aren't writing as many articles, and so... a quiet month.

Never underestimate the illusory power of a cybernetic feeback loop, is all I'm saying.

Anyway, once again news headlines across the globe are shouting about another devastating week for Trump. Like they've been doing since the 2016 Republican primaries (where, thanks to the media's nonstop Trump fixation, he got billions of $ in free press and the ability to sell himself to the GOP's voters. Heckuva job there, media.), all the while failing to recognize the true nature and magnitude of the threat to American democracy, and...

See, this is why I avoid writing about politics. Diagnosing a system in decline, trending towards collapse, is frustrating when the only language the powers-that-be in journalism-land speak is that of media cycles, who turned on who, what that one anonymous source everyone seems to quote so much may or may not have said in private. Political writing in the news media exists to gather clicks, and ultimately sell to ads. Journalists go on about their integrity, but their editors decide what is fit to print, and if you think they aren't disciplined as much by the need to generate revenues as some noble desire to truth-tell, well... how much money do you have? Will you give it to me? Because you are really, most of time, paying for entertainment, and not cogent analysis. And I can be entertaining! I can wear funny hats, do dumb dances, all kinds of ridiculous stuff!

Anyway. I've decided that paying attention to the news is a sucker's game. Critical events, the real moments where change can be effected, are not going to reveal themselves through the collective efforts of Op-ed writers and other pundits. Only attention to the actual function of the complex system that is American politics-economy-society can give you those. And, sorry to say, it is rarely entertaining to produce or report that kind of analysis.

Right now, there's a huge amount of social pressure to be engaged in politics, to be aware of what is happening, to be 'resisting' or whatever. But I think that is mostly a waste of time, except when directly effecting material change, like in getting a law passed or a decent candidate (there are a few) elected. And unfortunately, the way representative 'democracy' is usually structured, it is actually designed to prevent popular pressures from effecting change. It is meant to (and this is why the Founders chose this form of government for the nascent USA) slow down change, keep things stable and predictable.

Politicians and media hacks want to pretend like your avid participation and engagement matters, but it doesn't. We Americans, as a people, are disempowered by our system of government.

This is why Election 2016 was so crucial. Since the Second World War ended in 1945, the US has seen a massive concentration of power in the hands of the Presidency. Congress has failed time and time again to act to reign in the executive branch. American presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump all) now claim the right to kill Americans they decide are 'terrorists'. They've done it, too, to a few people. Without trial, without oversight (unless you count Congressional committees, which get to keep 'national security' proceedings secret).

Look, any Jill or Jack who has made it through Middle School knows, per the American myth, that the Founders expressly worried about the country being run by some future king. But our system has evolved such that we now effectively do have kings - albeit, up until now, kings who appeared to be somewhat willing to accept certain customary restrictions on their behavior.

This past week, the news has been abuzz with more rumblings about how incompetent Trump is, how there's some cabal of bureaucrats working to undermine his orders, yada yada. Media outlets are up in arms, declaring this to be a sea-change - like they've done every other time some horrible revelation has come out of the reality tv wreckage that is Washington D.C. But I have a sneaking suspicion that only death will remove Trump from the Oval Office (and then the Pence theocracy begins!), because he threatened in 2016 not to respect the result of the election if he lost, and in 2020 he'll almost certainly do it again - this time with all the power of the executive behind him. Money someone in his administration watches House of Cards. When the chips are down, when things get real rough, that Executive power - which Congress can only really challenge if willing to foment a Constitutional Crisis, and did I mention that we'll soon have a solid Conservative-majority Supreme Court, so good luck getting through that with your legislative-branch... whatever Pelosi comes up with? - is going to get America killed.

Americans simply don't understand the danger, and how little anyone can do (absent an actual coup, non-stop national strike, the GOP turning on Trump, or some other miracle) to stop Election 2020 from being the shitshow to end all shitshows. Here's hoping I'm wrong, but I predict airstrikes against Iran (won't go well), blatant voter suppression in swing states with a GOP governor, and another Electoral College - popular vote split.

The 2018 Midterms? I'll call it now - sure, the Dems take back the House. But the GOP holds on to 50 or 51 or 52 senate seats, so Trump can't be convicted even if impeached. 2019 will see Trump's boosters accuse the Dems in Congress of sabotaging their MAGA project, and blame them for all Trump's failures. The Dems under Pelosi will probably play all kinds of games and make a big show of leading a 'resistance' - but will do their very very best to set Joe Biden up as the anti-Trump in 2020 (this will be a disaster, if it happens).

A year of screaming, and then when things get dangerous for Trump (probably a GOP primary challenge, well-funded) the wag the dog begins. Possibly, depending on how violent the rhetoric gets, even political violence at home. Personally, I think most Americans are too lazy to engage in actual violence, but there are always a few nutters out there.

So how does this all play into the thing you might actually be here to read about, that is, Bringing Ragnarok? Well, for starters, while the details of Trump and Trumpism are heinous, terrible, and unprecedented tragedies - they didn't come out of nowhere, and they are signs of a system on the verge of collapse.

I don't think this can be stopped. I think the USA is pretty much done. I see three reasonably likely futures: The 'good' one, where a major reform effort deconflicts the contradictions in our federal system, and allows greater regional autonomy (even independence for places like California, Texas, and Cascadia); The 'middle' one, where an alliance of centrist elites basically merge the moderate republican and neoliberal democratic wings of the two parties to create a temporary sense of stability, a patch to the system, that will eventually fall apart; The 'bad' one, which serves as the foundation for the 2041 Thread, which takes Kim, Patrick, and Timur across Post-America Idaho.

Just for fun, here's my working timeline for American history from 2020 to 2028, the decade that sees America collapse entirely, as old contradictions work themselves out and the nation fractures politically as it already has economically and socially:

  • 2020 is a year of chaos and uncertainty, with air strikes on Iran and a bitterly contested election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, with multiple instances of hacking, voter suppression, and another Electoral College - Popular Vote split deepening the public sense of D.C. having gone beyond hope.
  • 2020-2024 sees almost total paralysis at the federal level, with multiple states openly defying federal authority, American leadership on the global stage now a thing of the past, and military operations continue unabated overseas. A new 'Great Recession' results from multiple rounds of tariff-hikes coupled to oil shocks resulting from conflict in the Middle East, and causes the collapse of numerous governments around the globe.
  • 2023 sees a dispute in the South China Sea escalate suddenly into open warfare. China launches a pre-emptive strike on Navy and Air Force installations in Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, destroying their ability to contest China's domination of the region. The American government is caught unprepared and unable to intervene, highlighting the American federal government's collapse into total dysfunction.
  • 2024 sees the next American Presidential Election, which while mercifully free of overt violence, sees the fragmentation of America's two major political parties into their constituent elements. No fewer than four Presidential candidates earn votes in the Electoral College, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, an institution that now routinely polls at 15% favorability among Americans. The resulting negotiations install a caretaker President, functionally powerless.
  • 2025 A new front opens up in the Middle East Cold War (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Turkey, backed by Russia and China vs. Saudi Arabia-Gulf States [Oman, Kuwait, UAE] backed by Israel, India, and USA) when Pakistan disintegrates, its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of would-be local warlords. China, backing the remains of the former government and Army, engages in a proxy war with India over control of resources. The United States, attempting to remain relevant, sends 'peacekeepers' who soon openly back India's intervention.
  • 2025-2028 Sees a long, slow, grinding civil war in Pakistan merge with the sudden collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian governments to produce a conflagration that tears the Middle East apart, sending oil prices skyrocketing. US involvement is sporadic and limited, but it soon becomes apparent that the Saudi intervention in Iraq relies (logistically) entirely on support from the Pentagon, which has slowly begun to act as its own agent in foreign affairs.
  • 2028 sees the start of another election cycle, with the present 'caretaker' President attempting to consolidate support from centrist parties formerly comprising the moderate wings of the old GOP and DNC. Exhausted by years of political turmoil, Americans report the lowest levels of engagement in federal politics since polls on the topic began, with most actual policy now being set at the state level.
  • In September of 2028 a sociopathic general who has spent a lifetime seeking power and authority within the United States Air Force launches a nuclear strike intended to decapitate the present leadership and install a friendly puppet as the new President. Later investigations reveal that General Hollahan had long believed that God spoke directly to him, and had given him a Holy Quest to bring down the forces of the Antichrist - which he interpreted as all non-Christians in the United States. Unfortunately for America, he was one of the few insane sociopaths capable of presenting as normal, evading psychological tests meant to weed out nutters from the nuclear chain of command. And by forming a small, pseudo-Christian cult within the US Air Force Academy, he was able to build a functional cabal capable of destroying the US government.

I guess I can't help but throw in a big 'kaboom' to really kick off the alternative history plotline. In reality, though, this is just a writer-trick to speed up what I already perceive as inevitable, that is, the functional division of America into successor states, as it experiences its Soviet Union moment. Everything aside from this attack (probably more possible than we think, but thankfully still unlikely) I consider to be as close to 'prediction' as someone can get, using the theories I rely on to do futurist analysis.

Sound depressing? It is. It is sad. America could have been, could still be, so much better. But the thing is, 'America' is actually a myth. A nice idea that lets us all think the world is a certain way, and that certain things can't, won't, ever change. But history doesn't work like that. It may be produced by human interactions over time, but there's a deeper structure to our social interactions than we realize. There are patterns to history, because certain forces are fundamental to human communication and cooperation.

What is happening in America right now is the resolution of many of these forces, too long ignored by our political elites, and so like a bent branch swinging back suddenly they seem to have produced a crisis out of nowhere. But they have a history. A heritage. A past rooted in colonialism and genocide. It's too bad most (white, at least) Americans don't seem to care about history. It's that ignorance that has doomed the American experiment.

Published in Blog
Friday, 07 September 2018 20:10

Bringing Ragnarok - Dev Diary 2

Woo, time for Developer Diary 2!

This week, Bringing Ragnarok Book 2 hit the (approximate) 75% draft-complete stage.

Now, that could mean a lot of things, so here's what it means for me: When I complete a draft, the story itself has been told to whatever checkpoint I've pre-established, and it is readable (but not good). I'm fortunate in that I've been writing and editing professionally for so long (that's what academia is, in reality) that my initial draft usually comes out pretty solid. At university, my general practice for writing an A paper was to bang out 12 pages in about 4 hours the day before it was due, spend an hour line-editing before printing, then it'd be off to turn-in. I'm just one of those lucky people who can compose about as fast as I can think, and the act of putting words together on a screen actually comes much easier to me than speaking.

And no, I'm not bragging - just being honest. Writing is the one thing I've always been told I'm good at. I ain't a great speaker, my ability to follow instructions without getting bored is minimal, and anyone who tries to tell me what to do rather than seek my consent is in for a very rude awakening (as too many past teachers would attest), so it is probably a good thing that I can write a reasonably interesting bit of prose (gods never poetry though, which is sad considering how much I would love to write music). Otherwise, absent living in a world where it becomes acceptable to hunt & gather for meals, I'd starve.

Which is all to say that, when left alone without any external distractions (emails, phone calls, so forth), I can consistently pump out 10,000+ words per week, which means I can draft a full novel-length book in 3 months.

This week's progress brought me to the point that I may be able to get Bringing Ragnarok Book 2 fully drafted by the end of September.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'll let anyone actually read it. While I can write reasonably well at a single go (that's pretty much how I blog, hence teh errers), I'd prefer not to be one of those indie ebook authors who gets review after review complaining about typos. I mean, I'll get some anyway, I'm sure, because I don't always follow grammar rules, and my speaking characters have a tendency to... grammatically innovate on the fly. Also, I choose word spellings for aesthetic, and often use Commonwealth English spellings (colour, armour) or de-accented German and Scandinavian because I'm too lazy to do Umlaut and Eszett correctly all the time.

So after the draft is done, I'll spend at least a full month editing full-time, line by line, half the time actually speaking the lines, especially character lines, to make sure they ring reasonable. A big chunk of the fun is designing characters who have independent personalities, likes, preferences, so on. And the only way to do that, given that I'm writing Bringing Ragnarok from local perspectives, trying to evoke the immersive feel of oral history, is to make damn sure the dialog doesn't suck too bad.

Still, unless something goes weird in the world (something else, 2018 has been a terrible, terrible year overall) between now and December, I'm on track to have Book 2 through draft, me-edit, Bev-edit, and final corrections right on schedule. Then on to Book 3.

In terms of this week's challenges, well, on the writing front it's just been churning out the words using the 'research' materials I've created. More of my thinking has been around how to actually get the story in front of people who want to read it. I've actually invested about $500 over the past couple months in learning the Amazon advertising system, which has happily generated a steady trickle of sales - not bad for a new indie author! I've also started to get ratings for Bringing Ragnarok on Goodreads, which was a pleasant surprise, inducing me to (finally) set up my author profile there.

BR is a bit of a challenge to figure out how to market, because the publishing world is set up to channel readers into genres, like science fiction, fantasy, military fiction, so on. But being me, I'm pulling pretty equally from Norse mythology, alternative history, and military science fiction, plus a general dystopia sort of feel. I'm self-consciously writing something EPIC, because that's what I like to read. Big ideas, deep history, challenging arguments. After this story is done, I'll probably pursue my Babylon 5 spiritual reboot, and do a space opera featuring fully-fleshed out, interacting alien species and the descent into Space War 3 (or whatever).

But in a publishing world still structured by genre, this has some downsides. Is an alternative history (alternate history, if you prefer) reader willing to accept a story that includes future alternate histories? Like Tolkien, when I read, I prefer something historical - true or feigned. So my dystopic futures of 2041 and 2147 are intended to be as historical as the dystopic past of 1944. I think alternative history fiction is my kind of fiction, and I definitely always enjoyed (and wanted to better) Turtledove's work. But are the strictures of genre too tight?

Similarly, while I'm drawing heavily from the tradition of military science fiction, I'm not sure that my use of a predominantly non-white male cast will play well with readers in that genre. Now I'm not saying that there's any particular reason why the writing shouldn't fit, but there are genres with a definite gender-skew, and while that's changing, it isn't changing fast enough. So are female readers - who I know must be out there, since by and large women like the same stuff as men, and read the same kinds of books but just aren't always socially allowed to admit it - so used to seeing white male characters as a staple of military science fiction that they don't browse that genre very often?

Me, I'm banking on there being a significant potential audience for an epic war saga that assumes half (or more) of the people involved should be female, because if you sample the human population, that's what you'll get (on average). Same thing goes for skin tone - in a world of 7+ billions, fewer than 1/3 with pale pasty skin like me, there should be more characters whose recent ancestors didn't all come from Northwest Europe.

Plus, something most people don't know, is that among hard-right blood & soil conservatives in the USA, there's a longstanding anxiety about secret United Nations troop buildups on American soil, preparing for a nefarious coup. The 2041 plotline is designed to make their nightmare a reality: the Missoula Regiment, while containing many former US military personnel like Sandra Chavez, is more than 50% international.

Yep, in the future I see coming, Russian, Chinese, Nigerian, Turkish, Peruvian, hell even Icelandic mercenaries (modern vikings, can I get a hell yeah!) camp out in (former) Yellowstone, right in the heart of Post-America.

Published in Blog
Friday, 31 August 2018 18:57

Bringing Ragnarok - Dev. Diary 1

As an author, I take a lot of inspiration from the world of video games and computer programming.

So I've decided to start writing short blurbs every week, pretty much about whatever comes to mind with respect to what I've been working on the past week. In the gaming world, this kind of thing is often called a 'developer diary' (here's one I've been keeping an eye on, for Hearts of Iron 4.)

Confession: I'm terrible at regular blogging. While I am currently writing Bringing Ragnarok 2 at a pace of about 10,000 words per week (give or take a couple k, depending on what else is going on), which I achieve pretty much by parking myself in front of a computer for at least 4 hours a day, regular blogging is a lot harder for me to sustain.

I haven't actually diagnosed the why of it, but I suspect part of the problem is my own general aversion to writing about myself, what I'm doing, what I'm feeling, so on & forth. I got into a spate of writing about the current state of American politics for a while, as I watched the nation lurch steadily towards a 1930s Germany redux, but I quickly realized that I don't have the stomach for regular political blogging. Too emotional, too... futile. Change happens when people with resources get together to make it happen, not when people get together to blog at one another.

Anyway, blogging is probably hard for that reason (aversion to self-sharing - it's a cultural thing), and also hard because I'm too much of a perfectionist. If I'm not careful, I'll go back and delete everything I've spent the past bit writing, just because I'm not sure I want to say it. (Hah! Actually didn't! Progress!)

But as I've been writing the second installment in the Saga of Six Friends, I've realized just how much I love world-building. When I close my eyes, places and things just sort of pop into existence, and then I try to figure out what they are and what they mean. And throughout my life, I've tried to shape some of them into stories I think some people might want to read.

So these developer diaries will share a bit of what I'm thinking about and designing into the world of Bringing Ragnarok. Part of the fun in writing it is taking my collection of notes and outlines and figuring out how to move characters through the world in a plausible, interesting way. I'm a big fan of realism in art, not so much in the sense of gory details, but in the feeling of being transported to another world. I appreciate it when writers do their homework, and I'm very tolerant of them incorporating detailed explanations into dialogue. I re-read Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, for example, about once each year. And every time I do, I spend hours poring over the appendices Tolkien so kindly created.

Of course, committment to realism presents some sticky challenges. This week, I've been writing (from Kim's perspective) the start of the climactic battle between the Missoula Regiment and Deserets in the Teton River Valley, Idaho. They start out in a listening post, on the north-facing slope of a small ridge coming off the eastern flank of the Big Hole Mountains. Being obsessive-compulsive, I wanted this ridge to be an actual place, that a reader could - with enough knowledge of the local terrain - plausibly re-create the course of the battle Kim, Timur, and Patrick are about to experience at Sandra Chavez' side. Just like Karen Fonstad does in her wonderful Atlas of Middle Earth. Just like I did in Book 1 with the Battle of Southern Butte.

All of which basically boils down to this: I've spent my week walking back and forth between my laptop + monitor setup in the library, where I compose, and the larger screen in the TV room, where I have another computer plugged in for PC gaming on the couch. And on that screen, all day, I've got Google Earth loaded up, and zoomed in to Eastern Idaho. Just so I can satisfy my own personal need to make my little Norse Mythology meets Quantum Mysticism meets Alternative/Alternate History meets Military Science Fiction saga (yep, I genre-mash) as plausible, in terms of the terrain, where the characters go, and how the battle is fought, as I can (note to self: figure out how to layer a campaign map on top of an actual topographic map of the area. Then publish as Dev Diary!)

I guess I should sum up by saying: Thank you, Google. You may do a bunch of stuff that I very strongly dislike, but at least you gave writers like me Google Maps to play with, totally for free.

I wonder what Tolkien would have done with Google Maps. I also wonder if someday I can get Google to make a Middle Earth mode...

Published in Blog
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