We Shall Have Time…

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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!

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The Odds Are Against Us—An Anthology of Military Fiction

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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!

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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?

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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 Guru.com 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.

Dramatic Tension: What Went Wrong with Act III of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Unlike my last post, this one will have some spoilers. It’s been two weeks, folks. Information wants to be free!

In general, I enjoyed The Force Awakens when I saw it. However, I noticed during the climax at the end that the assault on the Death Star—uh, no, the assault on the Other Thing—anyways, it lacked a lot of the tension that characterized the original Death Star attack during A New Hope. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and between the two of us I think we figured out the problem, and what JJ Abrams should have done instead.

During A New Hope, the first two attempts to attack the target failed. Worse, with every X-Wing that was shot down, it became increasingly less likely that the target could be attacked at all, until finally we are left with Luke, by himself, a sitting duck in Darth Vader’s gunsights. Dramatic tension was at a fever pitch, and then the Millennium Falcon arrives to save the day. Seconds later, the torpedoes go in, and we experience a massive rush of relief.

In The Force Awakens, first of all, the time limit has little impact on the viewer. We have seen this before, and giving us an exact (and arbitrary) time limit also drains away the tension until it returns in the final seconds, if even then. Second, the attacking squadrons immediately launch their attack on the primary target, and it fails without any particular explanation—or hope that the next one could succeed. Thus, we viewers realize, the X-Wing fighters actually don’t matter at all in the fight for dramatic purposes, and exist mostly to die gloriously.

So all of the attention is focused on our heroes on the ground—the same ones who have already planted bombs, and are in the middle of a dramatic character moment with a lot of emotion, and emotional tension, but not the tension you get from a race against the clock. At the final moment, time even seems to stand still, working against the larger sense of jeopardy the movie was supposed to create. All the pieces are working at cross-purposes.

What should the movie have done instead?

In the massive preemptive strike launched by the Super Weapon, it takes out multiple targets at once and then shuts down for a long period to recharge. This was a mistake, from a storytelling perspective. Only one of its targets was actually time-critical (the Republic fleet). Destroy that one first, and the others could be picked off at leisure. So what JJ Abrams should have done, is have the weapon fire once, every two minutes, continuously.

That way, every mistake the heroes make, every snag they hit, every obstacle they must overcome, means that millions more people die while they watch, each time the weapon fires again. Even better, it provides a better reason for the First Order to discover the location of the Resistance: when the X-Wing fighters make a panicked jump directly from their base to the Super Weapon, the bad guys can simply plot their path backward over the course of the next five or ten minutes. Then, after having destroyed several targets while we squirm in impotent horror, they can finally calculate the location of their hated enemies, and train their sights on the good guys, chortling evilly.

And then they can blow up.

That would have made for a much more effective Act III. And for the rest of us storytellers, it presents a lesson that sudden explosions are not necessarily better than explosions that we see coming, but cannot prevent.

Proxy Wars, and the Grand Strategy of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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[Edited to correct the name of the First Order.]

First off, this post about The Force Awakens will be spoiler-free—with the exception of a few bits of data about the power-politics situation in the Star Wars galaxy, which are actually provided in the opening crawl, so it’s not a big deal. If even this bothers you, feel free to click away; but the political background actually played very little role in the plot, so I feel comfortable discussing it more even for people who have not seen the movie.

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Okay, so you’re still with me. I just saw TFA this evening (has that become the official acronym yet?), and the film gives us very little indeed about the politics behind it all. This is not a problem, exactly; the original films told us nothing except “Here is an empire, here are some rebels, go play.” I’m not demanding a strategic overview like something out of Clausewitz. (And of course, it would be silly to have some contrived plot about trade federations and blockades that hardly makes sense to a three-year-old… ahem.) But TFA gave us some tantalizing hints, that I can’t help but expand upon.

The Empire has fallen. The messy aftermath is not explored in any great depth, except that the New Republic apparently controls much of the Empire’s old territory—but not all of it. And in what remains, the First Order arises. It views itself as a strategic enemy of the New Republic, but has not launched an open war. Furthermore, the Republic has not made open war either, but instead creates a proxy group to fight the First Order, called the Resistance. (Because “Rebels” was taken, I suppose.)

This has many fascinating parallels with real-life insurgent groups, which are often supported or funded by neighboring states who wish to cause trouble for their enemies, while maintaining plausible deniability. (One of the key recent works on state support for insurgencies is Idean Salehyan’s Rebels Without Borders, a concise and informative work.) Usually, states support insurgencies if they are too weak to confront their enemy directly, or if they are powerful enough but simply don’t want to incur the costs of a direct conflict.

The movie is ambiguous on which of these is true for the Republic, but there is some evidence that the second case holds. In my view, the First Order would have dearly liked to crush the Republic even before the movie starts, but did not have the naval power to do so. So then why would the Republic resort to proxies instead of defeating them directly?

Furthermore, there are some hints (much more debatable) that not all of the Republic agrees with supporting the Resistance. A particular figure even seemed to have paid a political price for providing aid, giving up her prior position of authority. (I could be misreading this, but it seems right.) So why would the Republic be so reluctant to confront the First Order directly?

Perhaps the difficulties of rebuilding the galaxy have been too taxing. Reimposing order after the Empire’s fall would have been a grueling job, and it may not be done yet. Committing the fleet to a war might expose the Republic to dangers from other quarters. Or it may be simpler. Even if the Republic is wealthy and powerful on paper, its leaders may still bear scars from the last conflict that make them flinch away from taking on another one.

Whatever the reason, in the real world supporting proxy insurgents carries its own risks. For the state sponsor, insurgents can often provide a cheap and easy way to cause your enemy a lot of trouble; but the immediate costs may not be the whole story. The targeted country will be just as angry at state support of an insurgency as it would if it had been the subject of a full-blown war—without actually being weakened by one. And even though diplomatic fictions and strategic constraints may make retaliation difficult, the targeted country will often use any means available to strike back. Sometimes, support for proxies can lead to the worst of both worlds for the state providing support, an angry enemy at its full strength. In those cases, it would have been better to attack directly, or not at all.

Though I do hope that we get more information about the Star Wars Universe’s strategic picture in future films, I know that it’s not really that kind of film. But there does seem to be a lot more going on behind the scenes than is openly discussed in TFA, and all of it is compelling. Well done to the filmmakers!

Excerpt from My Current Project

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[I’ve previously written that I want to write a handbook for writers on how to handle politics and political conflict in our stories. Right now I’m working on a precursor to that handbook—a brief study of different types of political regimes, summarizing and commenting on the work of political scientist Samuel Finer. Here’s a short excerpt from my current draft, a fictional vignette illustrating what one example of the Palace polity would feel like:]

Amanukemba XVII yawned as he completed the last of the sacred rites for the day. The god-emperor had to placate the Ancestors, of course, but now that all of that was done he could pay a quick visit to the harem before finally meeting with his high council. They were a tedious pack of bores mostly, but it wouldn’t do to antagonize them too much or the bureaucracy would just make trouble. He would smile and nod, and then meet with his true advisors in secret later that evening. They were men more to Amanukemba’s liking, ambitious and driven, yet without high station and title—too weak to pose a threat, and totally dependent on his patronage. And unlike the paper-pushers, they got things done.

Which was good, for much remained to be done before the fall. The granaries needed filling, and that meant that the peasants needed squeezing. Yet somehow he had to free up enough men from his conscript armies to ensure a good harvest, without exposing his frontier to barbarian raids. Choices, choices.

The emperor hummed a happy tune as he passed between the eunuch harem guards, who bowed at his appearance. He would ask for Messarina today. She would almost certainly try to flatter him and distract him, and then at a crucial moment she would ask about affairs of state, about which she had no business asking. If Amanukemba were lucky, she would then whisper a suggestion for what he should do, and then he might discover which official had been bribing his eunuchs to gain access to the harem. Not to take liberties with the concubines, of course—it would be madness to risk death by slow torture—but to plot and scheme and do all those things court functionaries seemed to do with their time.

The whole thing was silly, of course. If they were smart, they would all realize that the surest way to wealth and power would be to please the god-emperor, Son of the Ancients. He was too wise and cunning to be taken in by such petty manipulations. Perhaps his grandfather had been, but not his father, and not he…

The Power of Guiding Metaphors

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I’ve lately been reading The Axis Grand Strategy, a book published in America during World War Two. With only light editorial comments, it presents translated writings from German military theorists and officers about different aspects of warfighting. (The editors are presenting this material, in part, as a demonstration of Nazi perfidy; they highlight passages in which the Germans offhandedly note various breaches of international law—for example, that the invasion of neutral Belgium during WWI was conceived of a decade in advance.) The book is incredibly interesting from many points of view, and even as a historical artifact itself; I did not know, for example, that the Allied powers were calling themselves “The United Nations” even during the war.

One point that the book is reminding me of is the importance of metaphors in structuring thought. Over and over again, the German authors refer to the ideal military enterprise as a well-oiled machine, operating with incredible precision down to the smallest detail. To make such a machine possible took a stupendous level of planning and organization, which had to be carried out years in advance (and which the authors describe in great detail). This was one factor that pushed German doctrine to the conclusion that to have any hope for victory, they needed to decide upon war several years before actually carrying it out, and then to direct all of their government policy and grand strategy to support that decision. That is, once the German decision for war was made, it became largely inevitable that war would result even three or five years later—because German leadership believed that such decisions needed that much lead time for the planning process to be adequate, and victory to be possible.

To be sure, the “well-oiled machine” metaphor was not the only reason that German doctrine came to that conclusion, or even the most important one. But it surely played a role, because it presented an ideal towards which to aspire.

Lewis Mumford, in his Technics and Civilization, presents a similar argument about the development of vast hierarchical bureaucracies. He writes that the age of coal had dramatic impacts not only on our economy, but on the mindset of society’s leaders. Where previously, water-powered manufacture had been relatively decentralized, coal-fired steam power created tremendous economies of scale. The most efficient method would be to tie all of your machines into a massive central boiler; this also meant that they had to be standardized, coordinated, and operated without any sort of individual discretion or initiative.

According to Mumford, the success of centralized manufacture led thinkers to imagine that other centralized projects were ideal as well—massive bureaucracies, mass armies, central planning of the economy, and so on. These people had been conditioned by the guiding metaphor of coal-fired steam boilers, and the resulting hierarchical organization of mass factories. Many would even make the parallel explicit. Individual initiative simply made a mess; better to control everything from the head. The result was the age of totalitarianism.

Economist Richard Bronk, in his The Romantic Economist, makes a similar argument about the development of the idea of equilibrium markets in economics. He says that the guiding metaphor there came from thermodynamics; in an attempt to make economics into a mathematical science akin to physics, champions of quantitative economics proposed simplifying assumptions such as “utility” or “self-interest” that could transform economic behavior into something predictable, something that could be captured in quasi-thermodynamic equations. Bronk argues that such metaphors have been played out, and the further progress in economic thought needs to borrow metaphors from the Romantics—biological processes, or ecosystems, or webs of interdependence.

Today, we netizens are conditioned to think about networks, or crowdfunding, or robots. These new guiding metaphors have in turn produced new ideas of how governments should work, or how organizations should be structured. Some of these new ideas are even useful. But in any event, they are very different from the sorts of ideas that would come from a person accustomed to steam-powered factories.

The concept of a guiding metaphor is important if you are any sort of creative thinker, whether in business or government or the arts. If you write fiction, think about what metaphors influence your characters or even whole societies. If you have a business, think about how new metaphors can suggest new products or services. If you are in government, stop trying to bludgeon your society with models of coercive government that date from nineteenth-century proto-fascism.

If you want to create something new, try applying a different metaphor.

The Defense of a Free State

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[Note: This is one of the short stories that can be found in my Kindle collection, The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility. Given  recent events and the political debates that have accompanied them, I figured it would be appropriate to revisit this story. Let me know what you think!]

Beth had scarcely come home from the massage clinic where she worked when her smart phone beeped at her, with the news that Handgun Defense, Inc., was lobbying for more changes to gun-ownership laws. This time, they wanted to weaken the exemptions for pepper-spray.

“Ridiculous,” Beth snapped to her friend Donna, who had come by with a satchel of tomatoes from her garden. “Why should they force me to carry a gun if I don’t want to? What’s wrong with pepper spray?”

“It says here that they don’t think it does a good enough job against criminals,” Donna said with a sniff, reading from her own phone. “I think they just want to end up with everyone owning a gun, whether we want it or not.”

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How Ideas Drive Societies

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Recently I attended a wonderful seminar on “Capitalism and the Future of Democracy” with the Tikvah Fund. One of the main themes of the class was about how societies and economic systems could not simply exist on their own, but needed justification. Back in premodern times, all over the world, the pursuit of wealth was seen as morally corrosive, commerce was viewed with skepticism if not outright contempt, and governments saw it as their duty to guide economic behavior with a heavy hand. Then came John Locke, who argued that ownership of property was a God-given right, an individual accumulating wealth actually facilitated the welfare of the whole society, and the best thing that governments could do is to uphold property rights and otherwise get out of the way. Thanks in part to that claim, a revolution in thinking about commerce swept across Europe.

Now, many are agitating about growing inequality. Whether or not inequality is a problem (I think it is, though not always for the same reasons as others) and whether it should be solved by government intervention (I think most proposed remedies are worse than the disease), it is surely the case that ideas about economic justice are creating social currents that work against the “natural” direction of our current economic systems. Wealth will have to be justified if it is to be perpetuated.

I came away from that seminar with ideas for another long-term project, now that my dissertation is done. (More on that when I actually decide to launch into the thing…) But a larger point, which is useful for fiction writers as well as those seeking to change the political world, is that legitimacy is a powerful force. New ideas can change notions of what behavior is legitimate, or which institutions are legitimate, or how that legitimacy is to be established and maintained. Before you can overthrow the king and replace him with the glorious people’s assembly, you need to believe that kings are not divine and that people have the right to govern themselves. This is not an obvious belief, and how such beliefs get spread in a society could be a powerful story in itself.