Category Archives: Writing

Flops, Failure and Learning Experiences

So, about a month later than usual, I’ve finally gotten around to starting my taxes for 2017. Which gives an opportunity to reflect on my situation as it pertains to my writing.

2017 was the year I released my most recent book, namely this one:

It was also the first year since 2011 – when I first started publishing – in which I have not made money from my writing, in fact I racked up a financial loss large enough to be uncomfortable if bearable. The reason for the loss is on the face of it simple, Out of Era flopped. Completely and utterly. A bit of a pisser but there we are; it reviewed well but it didn’t sell beyond a handful. You hope that somewhere down the line it will pick up but really that’s grasping at straws, if it doesn’t kick off pretty much straight away it’s not going to.

So where did it go wrong?

So from here on we’re going firmly into the realm of anecdotal evidence. The last of my successful Nameless War series was released in September 2014, Out of Era came out in October 2017. That’s a big gap. In fact to be brutally honest it was probably too big a gap. I never stopped writing during that time but there were other priorities – I started dating a woman who I’m please to say has recently become my wife, I moved house into what was a bit of a fixer-upper and changed the day job for the first time in over fourteen years. The time slot for writing and its attendant activities basically took one hit after another. Meanwhile the world moved on and I suspect, most of the people that read and enjoyed the Nameless War forgot me enough that the name Edmond Barrett, stopped triggering any kind of mental response when looking at Amazon for something to read. Years ago, before I started publishing I heard another writer claim that to make a living at it you needed to put out at least one book a year. I always found that extremely believable but I never came even close. To manage it I would have had to give up the day job, which when you have a mortgage and are the sole source of income to your household, isn’t really a runner unless you’re prepared to really live up to the starving artist cliche.

The next factor which compounded the first was that I changed genre. My name and reputation as a writer was made in military science fiction; Out of Era is time travel. If you aren’t into science fiction that distinction might sound wafer thin but in fact is a significant gap. I’m not a known name in time travel stories so Out of Era had to go it alone. Had there been less of a gap between books, meaning had it come out while the final book of the Nameless War – the Last Charge was still selling in significant numbers there would have been a better chance of readers following me into the new genre. Which in turn would have boosted my visibility to potential readers who never heard tell of me. So Out of Era just got lost in the crowd. I did try some advertising but the problem there is you can burn a lot of money very quickly for very little return.

Another fact is that to my mind self publishing in 2017 isn’t what it was back in 2011. I know e-readers have been around since well before then but in 2011 they were the new must have gadget. Since there is nothing as useless as a e-reader with no books, people were looking for content and when Amazon opened its system to the self publishers there was suddenly a lot of cheap content. There’s no doubt a lot of it was bad but there was also some real gold and I had the good fortune to be a part of the first wave of e-book self publishers. There were a lot predictions that self publishing and e-books were going to kill publishing and paper books stone dead. That hasn’t worked out. What I think has happened is that e-books found their level. They aren’t going to go away but equally that first great rush came to an end.

My run with writing has been a pretty privileged one. I got to make money in reasonably significant amounts straight off the bat which certainly did a lot to justify the time spent on it. I knew the figure weren’t going to be good but it’s another to look at the cold hard numbers. I’m still going to write, it is and always has been as much a pass time as a profession but have had to re-think my expectations.

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Worldcon75

Only a few more days to Worldcon75, I’m going to be on two panels on the 12th of August.

Character-based military SF

Saturday 10:00 – 11:00, 101a&b (Messukeskus)

Military SF often deals with inventions and strategies, but sometimes it is character driven as well. The panel discusses their favorite military SF characters.

It Can’t Happen Here

Saturday 18:00 – 19:00, 216 (Messukeskus)

It can’t happen here: Looking at the headlines these days, and many people seem to be thinking bad things can’t happen where they live, but then we get Brexit. President Trump. Turkey sliding into authoritarian theocracy. Russia annexing Crimea with the international community watching. What can history teach us about things that can happen, and how do we write SF that is not going to be dystopias after dystopias? Heinlein’s story, Logic of Empire ends with the line “Things are bound to get a lot worse before they can get any better.” Is this inevitable? What can we do about it, and how can SF offer hope for the future with our fictional worlds?

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Finding the balance or picking priorities

About a dozen years ago I discovered webcomics, a few of which I follow to the day. Some I gradually lost interest in, other came to a natural end, a lot though a faded out as the creator’s attentions shifted and eventually even the website shuts down. The reason I mention this is that I’m painfully aware this blog has all but faded away, with this I only its third entry in 2017 . In fact when I logged in this even to write this entry, it was the first log in since March. One of the problems with any kind of creative endeavors is they’re hard to monetize – even you’re good. Added to that life has a tendency to drop other things in your lap that demand time, energy and frequently money. In short you have to pick where your efforts are going to be focused.

In the last twelve months I’ve changed job, started a new education course, had to do a lot of DIY work at home and last and by no means least got engaged. In short my free time took a bit of a paddling and something had to give. My writing slowed down, but where the axe really fell ended up being this blog. I will be attempting to resurrect it during the summer, but for the moment, I hope you’ll all accept this short place holder.

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Out now!

Just in time for Christmas the Omnibus edition of the Nameless War is now out!

trilogy-omnibus-cover-2This also includes a sample of my next book – Out of Era, due out in 2017

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Democracy deficit in SF&F

So the US election – wow, what a long drawn out painful affair that’s been, one that we sincerely need a break from. Okay so let’s talk about democracy in science fiction and fantasy.

Democracy isn’t actually all that well represented in SF&F, instead it’s fair to say that empires and other non-democratic governments are staple of both, sure there are exceptions but that’s what they are – exceptions. Where they do appear it’s particularly noticeable in SF they appear on the heroes side, although often poorly defined, while the opposition will be often described as as an empire or some other less than benign term. In fantasy the difference between the heroes and villains tends to be even more wafer thin, with the goods guys getting the wise and fair king, the bad the blood thirsty despot. Either way they’re usually the absolute ruler.

Fantasy’s default setting is a version of Medieval Western Europe. Now I’m not a scholar of medieval history but I do know a reasonable bit about English history of the period. In the case of the English kings of the medieval period, even the strongest of them were not absolute rulers. In theory they were but in practice below the monarch were the various nobles, these were people that had to be kept on side. Kings who failed to do so found themselves coping with either a lack of cooperation or outright rebellion – King John of England 1199 – 1216 being a case in point. Certainly it isn’t a democracy as we would recognise it but is still well removed from the idea of one-guy-calls-all-the-shots. The medieval or ancient period did see more formalised democracies, notably in ancient Greece. These would be more recognisable for us although the franchise would still be limited to people who were: male, free, wealthy, middle aged and landing owning – a franchise that was only exceeded in Britain in the late nineteenth century.

So if fantasy often takes its cues from a perceived version of history what about the future? Well if science fiction is a guide, empires and other non democratic forms of government have a fine future ahead of them. Obviously there are a few science fiction democracies, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is probably the best known although is pretty weakly defined in the films and television episodes. It also has the very underused Romulan  Star Empire, which despite the name was also described as having a ruling senate (which was wiped out in a virtual after thought in the underwhelming Star Trek Nemesis). There is also the Expanse Book/TV series that does portray both Earth and Mars as being democratic governments – at least on the face of it. Earth in particular elected officials appear to be borderline figureheads with the real power wielded by a tiny number of un-elected officials.

So why does SF&F have a problem with democracy? Three reasons I think 1) due process, 2) personalities 3) removal of ambiguity.

Even allowing for the excitement of 2016, politics is often a dry affair of committees, budgets and the various checks and balances, the more robust that democracy is, the more road blocks there will be between intention and action. Possibly this explains why in the Star Wars universe the first Death Star seems to have taken twenty odd years to build but the second, once the imperial senate was ‘swept away’, was banged out in a couple of years – no funding committees for the project to bog down in. Score one for for the totalitarian regime, yeah sh*t gets done!

Only problem is if we take a look at one of the most famous regimes – Nazi Germany – what you find is one that was horribly inefficient. Hitler had the final say so everything revolved around getting his ear, if you could manage it, then all kinds of pet projects could be authorised. Projects that ranged from mere duplication of effort to full on droolingly crazy. The same has proven true of various other despots, the top guy has a notion and there’s no one there to stop them. The really is that a lot of that due process, committees, going to tender and all the rest of it are in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. True out in the real world democratic governments have managed some massive screw ups but non-democratic governments have done the same and more. Where they manage to match democratic nations it has usually only been because standards of living being massively lower.

The other thing about democracies is elections, constant bloody elections, one that can see the sudden removal of leaders for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual performance. Take for example President Barack Obama, he has apparently a high approval rating but he will gone within weeks because that is the process within the USA. From a story telling view though it would be a pretty horrible way to deal with things if half way through, the established character disappeared to be replaced with one the writer and reader would have to get to know. Which brings us to our next area.

Now I write military science fiction, many years ago I remember reading someones comment that if you wanted to do a scientifically accurate space war, then your story would be about the life and times of Z-571 the nuclear tipped interplanetary missile. While you could certainly write it, finding someone to read it would be tricky.  So by extension a realistic democratic political system will see political figures removed with resulting changes in policy. Imagine Return of the Jedi, with the Alliance about to launch their attack on the second Death Star, only to hear that the Emperor has lost a vote of confidence and the new administration is proposing peace talks. That would be the point where you’d either walk out of the cinema or wing the DVD out the window.

Stories are about people. Writers create and develop characters then tell stories via them; generally there is limit to how many major characters a story can successfully support. In reality democracies tend to have a lot of people involved in the decision making process – even one like America where there’s a strong single executive officer. Trying to realistically portray this is likely to burn a lot of word count on an area that the reader might regard as secondary to the alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie apocalypse or whatever is the main point of the story.

If having a portraying functional democracy is tricky then doing two steepens the difficulty curve significantly. It is probably no wonder that the opposition side so often is described as an empire, if they’re a empire and the side the protagonists are on isn’t, then the implications are clear who are the good guys.* Sometimes this is the right decision – for the like of Star Wars (the originals) this worked because it went for the tropes. It needed the lack of ambiguity. For others it can be a missed opportunity for some real grey morality and added depth. Personally I’ve always felt that an author has to decide where the core story is going to be and to this the majority of the word count is dedicated, still that doesn’t mean the subordinate sections need default to cliché. I’ve only really touched on the various forms of government but history provides plenty of possibilities for those who go looking for them.

* I wonder a bit whether the preponderance of fictional empires can be traced back to the dominant role in entertainment that the USA has – a country formed when it successfully fought and broke away from an empire?

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Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?

History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate  but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?

First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful

bionic-arm

and these lines if we’re not

cyborg1Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings  – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source.  So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.

Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?

Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?

For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.

The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.

However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.

Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.

It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.

So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.

Thoughts, comments or observations?

 

 

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Working Disabled Characters Into Fiction

First off I am not disabled. The closest I get to disabled is mild short sightedness, without glasses I wouldn’t be safe behind the wheel of a car but that’s about it, so this entry comes from that stand point.
Over the weekend I was attending the Irish Science Fiction Convention – Octocon and one of the topics was ‘A Future Without The Disabled – Our panellists discuss future and fantasy worlds in which science or magic is believed by some to make the existence of disabled people “illogical”. From the eugenicists to the Star Trek movies, what does it say about us that we can’t imagine a future with disabled people? ‘

Now oddly enough I would say that SF actually has at least some track record for attempting to include disabled, for a start we have this guy:

geordi_la_forge

Now for any non-science fiction types this is the character Geordi LaForge from Star Trek, who was born blind, the gadget across  his eyes allows him to see, although not necessarily in the same way as the Mk I eyeball.

disAnother couple of examples are on the left Gary from the short lived TV series Alphas, who was autistic and Nick Fury from the Marvel cinematic universe, who is quite obviously minus an eye. However inclusion of a disabled character isn’t necessarily always successful. Of the three above Gary was arguably the most successful despite autism being one of the most difficult to do properly, while Fury is markedly the weakest because despite being down to  50% eyeballs, he doesn’t appear to suffer any problems with depth perception or peripheral vision, mostly it just makes him look cool.

Handling Disability with Fictional Characters

So broadly speaking I think we can think fictional disabled characters can be broken down into a number of categories with different treatment for each.

  1. Disablement from injury
  2. Disablement from illness
  3. Disablement from birth

With two sub categories within each for of mental disability and physical disability.

Frankly I think physical problems are generally a good deal less intimidating to approach, particularly for a main character but there are things we have to careful of. A disability that doesn’t in any way inconvenience the individual – see Nick Fury – is not really a disability. Autism is another one that is often badly handled, with it portrayed as some kind of super power*. At the same time a disabled person is still first and foremost a person. People with disabilities will attempt to live lives, they will attempt to find work rounds for their problems, they will likely aspire to things that are beyond their abilities. The novella Flowers for Algernon is a superb example of a story being told from the stand point of an intellectually disabled person.

No matter what you choose the next step is going to be research; if a character is being described as having a particular problem, you need to get the details right. Without that the writer runs the risk of coming off as condescending, pitying or just ignorant, none of which are helpful.

One other issue is cures. Out in the real world, over the last hundred years medical science has developed by leaps and bounds. Some conditions that were death sentences are now inconveniences. In science fiction, even when set in the near future, there can be a temptation to assume a easy cures, ones that don’t require rehabilitationsimply a blast of something from a syringe or something equally fast. The closer to reality the setting is, the more unrealistic this is. Illness and injury come with recovery times – I managed to get myself knocked down by a car in my twenties, even though my injuries were fairly minor I was still in plaster for three months.  Unless the work is set in some magic level technology setting, not all injuries can be entirely recovered from. Even when they can PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – can be an issue that remain with someone for the rest of their lives. Certainly if you intend to write in my own area – military science fiction – then PTSD is a possible consequence that you should consider for your characters or someone they know. Even beyond the military SF sphere it is worth considering the mental effects of injury or birth defect, scarring or birth marks may not physically impair in the slightest but could have grave effects on the character, especially when somewhere obvious like the face.

Why Not Opt Out?

So it is complicated. If you get it wrong you may alienate readers. So easy solution don’t have disabled characters.

Okay.

Well since we’re doing that let’s skip women? Homosexuals? People of colour?

Do I stick to writing character that are what I am and only what I am?

No.

Realistically unless your setting has no conceivable disabled, then they probably have to be there in some shape or form. In my own work I’ve thus far I’ve had two characters with physical impairments and one who arguably has PTSD (this is from the outset, I’m not including the ones I maimed during the course of books) although I must admit when writing them, disabled wasn’t a label I would have attached any of them – it was simply a part of their backgrounds.

Inclusive Language

Now as I was writing this entry the thought cross my mind am I using the right terms? Terminology changes and what was acceptable yesterday isn’t necessarily today. The following I found  HERE which come from the UK.Gov advice website.

termsSo there we have it, my brief thoughts on the matter, as ever any thoughts comments or observations are welcome.

* If that was in fact the case the whole Vaxer movement would have a very different complexion.

* Batman seems to be particularly good at getting these because apparently recovering from a broken spine is no big deal.

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