Geography, Travel, and Power Projection


, , , ,

Years ago, I wrote a post about long journeys in fantasy fiction. It discussed how incredibly difficult long-range travel was, and the profound economic and social effects caused by that difficulty. But I didn’t discuss very much the close relationship between ease of travel and political power.

Remember that in the premodern world, travel on land was extremely difficult compared to travel by sea. It was about as hard to transport a load of grain 100 km over land as it was to ship it from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Traveling off-road was slow, difficult, and dangerous; there was no guarantee of food, and it was easy to be injured by terrain or wild animals. Even when roads existed, travelers could easily be hampered by bad weather, bandits, or disease.

Why does this matter for politics? We who live in consolidated states sometimes forget that the government’s power is not a given. People generally comply with the government only when they are made to, through enforcement by armed men and the bureaucrats who keep them paid. Where there are no police, and communication with the government is difficult, inhabitants can ignore the law when it suits them. (Even in modern America, there are parts of Appalachia and other rural areas that are renowned for moonshine, drug cultivation, and general lawlessness.)

As James C. Scott lays out in great detail, the first requirement for the consolidation of political power is the ability to control people. That means that a state will generally only extend its rule into areas in which its soldiers can easily travel, in order to extract taxes and plunder and slaves. In Southeast Asia, the focus of his study, large cities were controlled by powerful rulers, but their ability to project their rule into the countryside was limited. During harvest season, the regime’s armies would sweep through the countryside in order to extract grain from the hapless farmers, and in some cases to take slaves. But in the monsoon season, when the roads became muddy lakes and were impassable, a regime’s effective zone of control often shrank to the borders of its capital city alone; the countryside would be beyond its reach.

Similarly, state control often did not extend up into hill country, mountains, marshlands, or other rugged terrain. State rule and so-called “civilized society” would be a feature of the lowlands, while the highlands would be seen as stateless zones of barbarism.

States that wanted to increase their power thus had a strong incentive to move population into arm’s-reach, and to keep them there. Cities were the most prominent example; walls were built not only to keep invaders out, but to keep subject populations in. Peasants were often forbidden to move away from their designated cities, and had to farm plots that were in easy traveling distance. (This was also meant to aid in creating legibility for the state.) Plus, serfs or slaves would be imported and kept under control by force.

On the flip side, Scott writes, people who wanted to escape the coercive state would often flee to inaccessible areas such as badlands, hill country, or marshes. There, they would set up “maroon communities,” or else join with the existing bands of stateless peoples who lived as nomads or foragers. Not that they would disconnect from the state entirely. Until quite recently in human history, a majority of the world’s population was outside of state control, and states depended on trade with stateless peoples to provide them with many of their luxuries (as well as slaves).

From the viewpoint of accessibility and power projection, you can see the tremendous importance that good roads played for imperial powers such as Rome and Persia; or the role that the Dutch and British fleets played in imposing their colonial rule across the seas. Nor was this only an issue in earlier ages; NATO forces in Afghanistan have suffered severe problems suppressing the Taliban specifically because of the difficulty in traveling through the mountainous terrain.

Summing up: power depends (in part) on a regime’s physical access to people. Regimes with better logistics, better traveling technology, and the ability to move their subjects into concentrated zones of control thus could intensify their own power.


(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)


So, About That How-To Book on Politics…


, , , ,

Some years ago, I blogged about my plan to write a book about politics for writers, filling a gap in the existing materials on worldbuilding. Most writing teachers focus on details such as the structure of the nobility, or the form of government, or other political features that are actually secondary to the fundamental questions of power, rule, and conflict. I hoped that, using my scholarly background in political science, I could create a guide that succinctly gave authors a powerful tool to generate stories from political conflict.

So what happened?

In short, I’m very badly stuck on how to structure the book.

Basically, there are a series of key concepts that underpin politics: geography, technology (especially weapons technology), the related issue of legibility (how easily a ruler can monitor and tax the peasants), power projection, legitimacy and ideology, and the social order (how wealth and power coexist with each other), to name just a few. Starting with those, you can very quickly drill down to the fundamental type of story you want to tell, and design your world to facilitate that. The problem is that all of these concepts tend to interpenetrate, in a big gnarly ball of connections shooting every which way.

So in trying to essentially give a crash course on graduate-level PoliSci, where does one start?

And if someone wants a checklist for use in worldbuilding, what order would you follow?

I honestly don’t know. But if I keep dithering, the book will never get written, and all you aspiring worldbuilders will be left adrift in a sea of bad fantasy-kingdom pastiches. (Horrors!) My current plan, therefore, is to write blog posts about the various fundamental concepts piecemeal, without worrying overmuch about their order or relationship to each other. I will be collecting these posts, and past posts on related topics, in a new page called Politics for Worldbuilders, which you can see in the top of the blog.


(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)

“…A Bribe Blinds the Eyes of the Perceptive…”

In a previous post, I asked whether it was a good idea to have a Kickstarter reward for authors who donated $50 to have their submissions critiqued, and to have the opportunity to resubmit. The reaction was generally negative, and I understand why; and to be honest, I should have known before asking that it would be problematic. The Talmud (Ketuvot 105) lists several examples of where even pious scholars had their judgment perverted by attempts at bribery, even when the bribes themselves were refused. In general, the rabbis issue a stark warning against any hint of conflicts of interest.

I may still offer some kind of critique as a reward, but if so, it will be for a separate story that is not under consideration. Thank you to everyone who gave their feedback!

Lessons Learned from a Successful Kickstarter


, , ,

I’ve been writing for a long time, but The Odds Are Against Us is the first time I ever tried to put together a collection of other people’s work. It’s also the first time I ever ran a successful Kickstarter project, with all the expectations that implies. So the last year has definitely been a learning experience; the good news is that for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, I’ll be better prepared. (By the way, submissions are open! Click the link and check it out.)

Since I’m surely not the only person who’s producing a compilation of other people’s work, I figured that a writeup of my key takeaways would be interesting. So here they are:

1. Everything takes longer.

When it’s just you, you are limited by your own capabilities; but on the other hand, you have total control, and no coordination friction. Once other people are involved, time has to be budgeted in dealing with all the slowdowns that result. And even if you think you gave yourself enough time, you probably didn’t.

I first published the Call for Submissions in December 2016, launched the Kickstarter project in February 2017, and promised the completed anthology to my backers by December 2017. In my case, even though editing the stories took more time than I anticipated, I actually did give myself a distant-enough deadline to handle the overflow anyway—provided that we went the self-publishing route, which was the plan. Even when I started talking with my publisher, I assumed that there was enough time left to meet our promised deadline without difficulty. But traditional publication is a much, much, much more deliberate process than I expected. Hence the delay.

2. Start planning your campaign early.

I didn’t decide when to launch the Kickstarter campaign until far too close to the anthology’s submission deadline; so marketing suffered, and the project page wasn’t as polished as I would like. For one thing, the promo video used computer voices, which sounded hideous, because I could do it in an hour or two—but I figured computer voices were marginally better than no sound at all.

For my next project, even though I’m planning to launch the Kickstarter page in April, I’m already in contact with artists and voiceover actors. With a little luck, the project page will be far more attractive than it was this time around, which means more backers and more money for authors. And speaking of which…

3. Budget realistically.

Kickstarter takes roughly 10% of the gross as its fee. It also costs money to mail physical books to backers, or to provide other tangible rewards. And about 70% of the funds raised were used to pay the authors, of course—and suddenly we’re already in the red.

I expected that, and viewed it as a long-term investment, in principle. And on the bright side, for a modest project like this one, the dollar amounts are manageable. But in a larger project, the costs of distributing backer rewards can quickly get out of hand if you don’t plan for them carefully.

I don’t know yet what proportion of funds will go to the authors the next time around, but it may end up being closer to 60%. And as fun as it sounds to offer things like bookmarks or art prints, we’ll probably skip all that and stick with intangibles, like being able to name a character.

4. Know what rights you want from your authors, and why.

With my original plan to self-publish, I didn’t care so much about securing a long term of rights from the anthology’s authors. When traditional publication became possible, that became a problem; the publisher was hesitant and ultimately wanted a longer period of exclusivity, which I had to get from the authors. That slowed us down.

Next time, I’ll have a better set of expectations about what rights to secure, and will get signed contracts from the authors in advance. That will make the anthology more marketable, and will hopefully help us avoid unexpected delays over the legal wrangling.


If this was helpful for you, let me know in the comments. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding methods are powerful, but you need to have a plan and realistic expectations. Once you are armed with those, however, the power of crowds can help bring new works of art to life.

Would Paid Critiques Be Appropriate for the Call for Submissions?


, , , , , , , ,

I’ve been thinking about how to make my current anthology project as awesome as it can be. For one thing, I’ve noticed that a number of submissions are by relatively new authors who show a lot of talent, but maybe could use some feedback. The other thing is that I’m trying to figure out attractive swag for the Kickstarter project that we are going to have in a month or two.

Here’s an idea I wanted to run by people: what if authors could pledge, say, $50 to the Kickstarter in exchange for getting a one-page high-level developmental critique of their submission, and the chance to resubmit (as well as the smaller-dollar backer rewards, such as book copies)?

On the positive side, most of that money is going right back to the chosen authors, so it’s a kind of “pay it forward” thing. Plus, it lets new authors improve their writing, which is always a good thing.

I’m worried, though, that people might see it as “pay-for-play,” meaning that the donation would become a stealth entry fee, or that people who donate would have a leg up over those who don’t. That’s absolutely not the case—I want the strongest stories in my anthology, not the ones who pay me a few bucks—but it is true that the chance to get feedback from the editor would make it easier to improve your story to my taste. And I don’t want people to be turned off, or to think that this is a scam.

So I’m asking you. Do you think that this would be appropriate? Or would you feel like this is a scam, or be otherwise turned off? Would you yourself be interested in a critique? How much would you be willing to pay for one? (Bear in mind that most critique services charge much more than $50 for a 20-page manuscript.)

Let me know in the comments. And if this is something you are interested in, be sure to sign up for my mailing list to be notified when the Kickstarter goes live, so you can order your critique.

Under Contract! (Plus, Call for Submissions!)


, , , , , ,

Amazing news—the short story anthology of military fiction that I’ve mentioned before just got placed under contract!

Hopefully, I’ll have more news to report before long. In the meanwhile, it’s time for another Call for Submissions…

The theme for the next anthology is “Ye Olde Magick Shoppe.” Full rules are here, and the deadline is June 1. Your stories must include the buying or selling of magic as a plot element. Be sure to read the full rules, or risk the slush pile.

I look forward to reading your submissions! Good luck!

We Shall Have Time…


, , ,

The many months since my last post have been an incredible trip. My Kickstarter project was funded, several tremendous short stories were submitted to the anthology, and they’ve only gotten stronger as we’ve gone through the editing process. Now I’m trying to figure out the best way to publish.

If there is one thing I have learned from this process, it’s that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. The thought of a total unknown like myself soliciting short stories with only a vague promise of payment, and then attracting enough crowdfunding sponsors to actually make the whole thing work, was terrifying. (My biggest fear was that only a handful of poor-quality stories would be submitted, and I’d be forced to publish them just because I had committed to.) I could very easily have decided not to go forward with the whole thing.

And yet, it all managed to work out in the end. The selected authors are great, our backers were incredibly generous, and once I get the logistical questions worked out, the world will have a book showcasing brand-new stories that might never have been seen otherwise. Which is a great feeling!

The Odds Are Against Us—An Anthology of Military Fiction


, , , , , , , , , ,

Last month, I put out a request for submissions for an anthology of short military fiction. Now, the time has come. The first three authors have been selected, and the Kickstarter project is live!

We’re still accepting story submissions until April 1. The more money gets raised, the more that chosen authors will be paid, and the more stories we can publish. Join me to make this a reality!soldiers-2b

We Need Your Short Stories!


, , , , , , , , , , ,

If you have visited this blog since the new year began, you might have noticed a new series of pages in the top menu. It’s part of a new concept I would dearly like to develop, which should provide more opportunities for authors to find paying work as well as giving readers more influence over the books that get written. I blogged about audience-driven book writing at the end of December, and now you can join with me to make the concept a reality.

I am accepting submissions for a new short-story anthology in the genre of military fiction (chosen mostly because it seemed to be underserved, compared to its reader base). The deadline for submission is March 1. Stories should be between 3,500 and 7,000 words long. Selected authors will be paid for publication rights. And in a few weeks, I will be launching a Kickstarter project to raise the funding for publication.

If you want to learn more about submitting your writing, check out the full description and short-story requirements here. And if you want to be notified when the Kickstarter project goes live (whether you are an author or a reader), sign up here. (If you want to suggest a new genre for the next anthology, please do so in the comments below.)

The full vision is for groups of readers to pool their funding, and pay authors to produce the works that they want to read. This anthology is Step One towards fully realizing that vision. For it to work, we need your stories—your talent, your craft, the vivid characters and gripping situations that you want to show the world.

If you have friends who are authors, or who are readers, please share this post and let them know of this opportunity. Again, this is a paying gig—and if the Kickstarter goes well, we may be able to publish stories from more authors than the minimum, making the anthology even more attractive for readers. This is not a zero-sum game; there are no limits. The more people who join together, the more that everybody wins.

Show the world what you can do.

Audience-Driven Book Writing?


, , ,

I’ve been fascinated for a while by the promise of crowdfunding campaigns to help democratize the world of writing and publishing. For example, many enterprising authors and editors have used Kickstarter to pre-sell their books, reducing the financial risk of self-publishing and possibly attracting a wider audience in the process. Thus, authors whose work might be too quirky for “traditional” publishers have the chance to make their own case to the global readership.

This might be a mere subspecies of the general category of self-publishing, except for one thing: the audience members are not just consumers of the final product, but in a real sense make that product possible in the first place. That changes the dynamic considerably, and it also suggests further possibilities.

If you are an author, you generally have three broad strategies to follow:

  1. Write your own unique masterpiece without regard to whether it will sell. Desperately try to attract the attention of publishers (or, if self-publishing, readers) after the fact.
  2. Formulaically copy whatever hot trend people are buying (sparkly vampires, werewolves, dystopian-cute young-adult, et cetera) and pitch it to a niche publisher (or if self-publishing, niche audience) after the fact.
  3. Weave together existing popular tropes, possibly across genres, to make something familiar yet new. Pitch it to an appreciative niche audience (or if you are lucky, a publisher), after the fact.

(Why do I say “after the fact”? Funny you should ask…)

On the other hand, if you are a reader, you generally have one basic strategy, with two variants:

  • Find an author who has already written something you like, and buy it.
  • Find an author who has already written something you like, and pre-order the next thing.

(Why do I say “already”? Funny you should ask…)

Readers are basically helpless to the whim of the authors; they can only buy what has already been written. Yet many authors are desperate to write things that readers will buy, without necessarily knowing what those will be or how to find out.

On a related point, for authors to be successful in the self-publishing business, they have to be sufficiently competent writers, and be exceptional marketers. If you hate marketing, your only alternative is to try and get a book deal with traditional publishers; and even then, much of the onus of marketing your book is on you. (Admittedly, you do avoid the technical work of laying out and printing the book, or paying someone else to do it.)

I think there is another possibility that crowdfunding has afforded us. Consider the following scenario:

Alice likes the idea of, say, werewolf romance novels in space, but can’t find any to read and does not want to write them herself. She does, however, want to bring “Werewolves in Space” into existence. So she launches a Kickstarter project to fund, not the publication of an already written book, but a Request for Proposal (or a writing contest, if you prefer) for a third-party author to write such a book to her specifications.

One can already pay writers directly to write books to order, on sites like or Freelancer; but since in that case a single individual is paying the whole cost, such books are typically written cheaply and are of poor quality. Here, with a Kickstarter, Alice can find other werewolf-in-space fans who like her idea, and are willing to contribute their own money until the total prize is worthwhile for good authors to consider. If Alice manages to raise, say, $10,000, that might catch the attention of skilled author Bob Bodiceripper, who could then submit a proposal. If accepted, he would then write the exact book that Alice and her fellow werewolf fans wanted, but could never find.

Everybody wins. Fans can order the books they want to read, authors can write to known specifications, more books are written and paid for, and more authors get read. And this would not displace the existing channels for writing and selling books either; it would represent a true broadening of the market.

Yes, many fans might pay for embarrassing dreck. But they do that anyway, and letting readers directly influence the types of books that get written may well open the door to new and exciting possibilities that no one can imagine today.