Politics for Writers?


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This being November, I am once again participating in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Which of course has me thinking about one of my favorite topics, politics and fiction.

There’s a lot of “how-to” material for writers out there—how to write a compelling scene, create believable characters, and so on. But as far as I can tell with some random Googling, there seem to be few resources to help writers (especially fantasy and science-fiction writers) think about politics. As I’ve written about on this blog before, most writers have only a few mental models of how politics could work (fantasy medieval kingdom, evil galactic overlord, idealized democracy, and maybe one or two others); while there’s nothing wrong with any of these when handled well, the shortage of raw materials affects the kind of stories a writer can tell. As a political-science junkie, I find myself wishing for more variety.

What resources there are seem to view politics from the perspective of world-building, as an afterthought of things like culture and language. For example, Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic (which is otherwise a fantastic aid to fleshing out the richness of invented societies, and I highly recommend it) devotes less than ten pages to politics—and those are mostly asking checklist questions like “Who is in charge? How do they punish criminals? What rights are there?”

Missing is any discussion about what an author’s choices would mean for the story. Or, even more useful, what kinds of stories you could best tell in a given political system. Or, best of all, how the tensions within a given political system could give rise to powerful new stories. If I were a beginning author, I would want to start there—and once the plot is in place, then I would decide on the details that all the world-building resources deal with.

So it seems to me that there is a great need for a writer’s guide to politics in invented societies, and how to choose among political systems to help generate the strongest plots. But to write a guide like that, you would need to be an expert in politics who can cut through all the details and isolate the fundamental building blocks—the handful of key questions that are the key to rapid understanding. (As you can probably tell, I’ve been reading a lot of Timothy Ferris lately…)

As it happens, I am an expert in politics. And better, I’m an expert in Comparative Politics, which is the most interesting subfield within political science, if I may say so myself. And I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a long time.

What I’m envisioning is a relatively short e-book that would describe each archetypical political system before distilling it down to a single chart of features, showing the most important actors in the system, the key points of stress, and the story themes that this system is perfect for dealing with. For example, a communist dictatorship would be a good setting to address themes of the individual versus the state, or property and communal need, or privacy in the face of constant surveillance. A monarchy would be good for looking at questions of loyalty, honor, the role of divine right, and so on.

There’s a lot more, of course, but the key here is that in a very few pages, you could learn how to build exactly the political system you need to form the backdrop to the story you want to tell—or you could discover new kinds of stories that never would have occurred to you otherwise.

If this is something that you’d want to see, be sure to fave this post, and I’ll get right to work.

The Princess, the Dragon, and the Baker: A Chanuka Fairy Tale


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[What follows is the text of an illustrated children’s book, now available on Kindle and in hardback. The artwork from my artist collaborators is absolutely stunning! Check it out!]

Once, long ago in a faraway land, there was a wise princess who lived in a magical castle. The princess commanded a large fearsome dragon, who was strong enough to do all sorts of work that people needed. If the people needed fish, the princess would tell her dragon to carry a giant net to the ocean and fish there. If the people needed a new road, the princess would have her dragon melt rocks with his fiery breath and pave the road with them. And the people were happy, because their princess took care of them.

But the dragon was not happy. Not only was he doing all the work, but he was always hungry, because the princess wouldn’t let him eat people. Imagine you were a dragon, and you were surrounded by happy people all the time, and you couldn’t even eat one of them! So the dragon was very sore at the princess, and dreamed of a day when he could break free of her control.

At last, his chance came. The dragon used a powerful magic spell to send the princess into a deep sleep, and hid her away in her castle. Then he flew out into the land, and ate dozens of sheep and cattle and even a few people. And the people were afraid, because their princess was gone and could no longer take care of them, and because the dragon’s hunger was insatiable.

Many heroes ventured into the castle to save the princess, but none of them ever returned. The people lost hope that they would ever have their princess back. But one man had not lost hope. Yet he was no great warrior, but a simple baker named Chanoch. And he had a plan.

One day, Chanoch came up the road to the castle, carrying a big heavy backpack, and cautiously crept inside. He found the main hall covered by thick darkness; he couldn’t even see the great throne where the princess sat, but he knew in his heart that she was there. Looking around the edges of the darkness, he saw four great oil lamps on the left side of the room, and four more on the right.

“If I light those,” he said, “I’ll be able to see the princess. Maybe then I’ll know what to do.”

But scarcely had he taken out his flint and tinder to light a torch, when the room rumbled as the dragon swooped down from the roof and landed on the floor with a thud. “Oh no you don’t!” he cried with a mighty roar. “I suffer a terrible hunger, and the princess would never let me satisfy it. So as long as the hunger remains, the princess will stay my prisoner!”

Oddly enough, this was just what Chanoch had expected. “Good sir dragon,” he said kindly, “of course I don’t want you to go hungry. But have you ever tried eating something other than people?”

The dragon paused and cocked his head. Normally, the heroes just went straight to the stabby stabby, and then he ate them. Chanoch’s politeness was unusual. “Well,” he said, “the princess fed me nothing but lettuce and tofu. It was all so bland. I needed something more. I needed to eat people!”

“I can understand that,” Chanoch said. “But what if there were a food that was better than people?”

“Like what?” the dragon asked, curious.

For answer, Chanoch took out mixing bowls, a frying pan, and ingredients from his backpack: flour, water, sugar, eggs, and oil. He mixed dough, formed it into round balls, and put them into the pan with a little bit of oil. “Could you do the honors?” he said to the dragon.

The dragon was skeptical, but he breathed a short puff of fire onto the pan, frying the dough balls in the oil. Chanoch nodded in satisfaction and held one of the dough balls out to the dragon.

“What is it?” the dragon asked.

“It’s called a donut,” Chanoch replied.

“Hmm,” the dragon said. He snaked out his big head and snagged the donut with his long thin tongue, chomping on it with his giant pointy teeth. “Not bad,” he said, surprised. “Nice and soft on the outside, and sweet and chewy on the inside. Kind of like people.” But he hesitated. “It’s still not as good as really eating people,” he said. “There’s something missing.”

“Tell me,” Chanoch said, “and I’ll try to fix it.”

“Well,” the dragon said, concentrating on the taste, “when I eat people there’s a gooeyness to it. The donut is too dry on the inside.”

Chanoch smiled. “Easy enough.” He took out a jar of strawberry jelly and a large syringe. Sticking the syringe into the center of a new donut, he squirted jelly inside, and sealed the hole with a little dough. He held it out to the dragon. “Try it now,” he said.

The dragon ate the jelly donut, chewing slowly, little globs of jelly dripping onto his scaly lip until he licked them up. “Hey, this is good,” he said. “Even better than before.” But still he hesitated. “It’s close, but it’s still not quite the same.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” Chanoch agreed. “Fried donuts aren’t people, even if you put jelly in them. But I’ll tell you how you can make them even better than people.”

“Better? Really?” The dragon blinked his great shining eyes.

“All you have to do,” Chanoch said, “is say ‘thank you’ before you eat them.”

The dragon laughed, smoke trailing from his mouth. “That’s silly! How could saying ‘thank you’ make food taste better?”

Chanoch smiled. “Because saying thank you shows that you appreciate the food. Here, try it.” He held out another jelly donut.

“I still think it’s silly,” the dragon said, “but all right.” He snaked his head forward again, but before grabbing the donut, he said, “Thank you for this donut.” Then he chewed and swallowed. As he did, the dragon’s face glowed with delight. “Wow!” he said. “You were right! This is so much better than people.”

“So does that mean you’ll free the princess?” Chanoch said.

The dragon licked his lips, fidgeting. “Do you think the princess will let me eat these jelly donuts? Or will she make me go back to tofu?”

“If you say thank you for them, I’m sure the princess won’t mind,” Chanoch said. “And I promise you’ll get all the jelly donuts you need.”

“All right then,” the dragon said. “I sealed the princess with a word of power. When you light the lamps, you’ll be able to read it. Just speak it aloud, and she’ll wake up.”

So Chanoch lit the eight lamps, and their light drove away the darkness in the throne room. Just as he knew she would be, the princess was seated on her throne, fast asleep. Hovering in front of her was a glowing word, written in the air. Chanoch spoke it aloud, and it dissolved. The princess woke up.

“Sufgan!” she said. “You’ve been a very naughty dragon!”

“I know,” the dragon said sheepishly. “But it’s okay now, because Chanoch is going to give me jelly donuts to eat instead of people.”

“That sounds better, Sufgan,” the princess said. “Just as long as you’re sorry, and you never do it again.”

So everyone was happy. The princess was awake again and could take care of the people once more. This time Sufgan the dragon got to eat jelly donuts, so he didn’t mind working. And he always said thank you to Chanoch.

The people were glad that their princess had been returned to them, so much so that they made a holiday in Chanoch’s honor, which they called Chanuka. They even forgave Sufgan the dragon, and called his jelly donuts Sufganiot. Even today, we eat sufganiot on Chanuka to commemorate when the princess and the dragon started working together again.

So now, dear readers, have a happy Chanuka. And remember that when your own dragon get hungry, it’s better to eat jelly donuts than to eat people. And don’t forget to say thank you!

[If you liked the story, check it out in lavishly illustrated Kindle or hardback!]

Say, Who’s Up for A Kickstarter Project?


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Grumpy dragon is grumpy...

UPDATE August 19: The project is live! Check it out here:



I’m gearing up to launch a Kickstarter project for my new book, The Princess, the Dragon, and the Baker: A Chanuka Fairy Tale. (You can actually check it out as a Kindle book here if you have a compatible Kindle reader; it’s enrolled in Amazon Select, so you could borrow it for free if you like.)

The whole Kickstarter thing really is amazing. As I wrote in my first book, the ability to commit to a project without worrying if you’re going to be that one sucker who paid in when no one else did has revolutionary possibilities. I’ve been itching to do a Kickstarter project even before I knew what the project would even be about—that’s how cool I think the whole idea is.

Check out the preview of my project (EDIT: we’re live now, no more preview!) and let me know what you think! (I’m particularly interested if the “Cameo” reward sounds like something people would be interested in. If you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them.)

Want to Write Flash Fiction?


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I’ve been quite busy over the last few weeks with my new bookThe Best Congress Money Can Buy. Setting up the paperback edition and ordering copies has been exciting, as has been trying to publicize the thing. (I briefly got up to #3 on Amazon in the category of Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Political, which is pretty sweet!) And right now I’ve got other ideas for stories swimming through my brain that I’m trying desperately to fight off, at least until I clear out some of my other projects… But I just came across something I had to tell people about.

As I’ve mentioned briefly before, I’ve benefited greatly from writing classes I purchased from the excellent teacher Holly Lisle (whose name will likely be familiar to anyone who frequents the NaNoWriMo forums). Well, she recently rolled out a new freebie class for people who register for her site and opt into the mailing list. It’s titled “How To Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t Suck,” and so far it is teaching me exactly what it says in the title.

I’d never really thought about doing flash fiction myself; I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know how to structure it or what the point was in writing it. Now that I’ve read Holly’s very first lesson in the three-session course, I’m a lot more interested. Not only does the form have possibilities that I never considered before, but writing lots of flash fiction is an excellent way to drill in the fundamentals of a good story: strong character, driving conflict, compelling needs and vivid description. I can’t wait for the next installment to come out!

This isn’t the only course of Holly’s that I am taking, not by a long shot. But I paid good money for the others, and this one is free—and it’s a brilliant summary of all of her techniques in a few short lessons. When I read the first lesson, I knew I had to spread the word. It’s just that good!

So if you want to learn how to write better stories, click on this link, register for her site, and then make sure to opt into the email list. (I think the opt-in button has a big picture of a dog wearing a hat, but don’t quote me.) It’s all free—but don’t be surprised if you end up taking some of the bigger classes. Lord knows I have!

When Do Societies Face Unrest?


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I have just read a recent journal article by the brilliant scholar Peter Turchin, in which he elaborates on his theory of the dynamics of social instability over time and tests it on the United States from 1780 to 2010. Put briefly, his theory holds that one can expect a society to suffer greater social violence (such as riots or lynchings, as opposed to routine crime) in a relatively predictable cycle. The larger “secular” cycle occurs every 150 years; a smaller cycle of violence occurs roughly every 50 years, superimposed on the secular cycle. Thus in the United States, we had peaks of societal violence near the years 1870, 1920, and 1970, with the Civil War being the peak of the secular cycle. Turchin forecasts that the next secular peak should hit sometime around the year 2020. Turchin’s previous work has detected the same sorts of cycles in societies from ancient China to revolutionary France.

Of course, detecting a pattern does not tell you what has caused it. Turchin’s theory for when violence intensifies depends on two major factors. Both of these factors might derive from excessive population growth; in the early version of Turchin’s work, he was focusing on agrarian societies in which population growth leads directly to food shortages. But now that he is considering Industrial societies, Turchin is focusing more on the immediate causes laid out below.

First, whether from excessive population growth or technological disruption or whatever, there emerges a labor glut. The average wage drops in response, leading to diminished standards of living. Thus you see larger segments of the populace who are in a precarious situation, with the potential for violent outbreaks such as labor struggles, or ethnic competition with minorities, or political upheaval.

Second, there emerges “an oversupply of elites.” This can happen for a few reasons, and Turchin focuses on the economic one. The low cost of labor means that it is easier for those on the top to become far wealthier than they might have done in a more normal setting, leading to the accumulation of vast fortunes and a polarization of society. A consequence of this is that there is much more competition for the leadership positions in society, such as control of government offices. Politics becomes more nasty and partisan, leading in extreme cases to violent rivalries between elite factions struggling to secure their hold on power. Such violence is made easier by the larger number of poor, desperate people in society who can serve as a demagogue’s muscle.

In Turchin’s research, he finds that oversupply of elites has the strongest association with societal violence. This is easy to understand when one looks at places like the Philippines, in which politicians routinely employ armed militias to attack competitors (a horrifying example was the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009), or the Congo, which has been wracked with coup after coup. But even in the United States, a surplus of would-be leaders will tend to produce extreme ideologies, such as militant unionism in the 1920s, or the present upsurge in eco-terrorism.

I think many people, writers among them, mistake the relationship between cheap labor and exploitative rich. Often, a super-wealthy class emerges as a result of lots of poor people, who make it easier to be rich—that is, to benefit from the production of lots of other people. This is not to say that an exploitative class won’t try to keep everyone else poor, once it emerges. But the dynamics are complex here, and societal violence is one of the things keeping them in check.

(How might such violence be averted? Full discussion will have to wait for another post, but I find it rather interesting that the Biblical institution of Jubilee, in which land was returned to its ancestral owners and debts forgiven, follows a 50-year cycle.)

(Have I mentioned lately that my new book is available on Amazon Kindle? It’s called The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility. You can read the first story for free here, and then buy it if you like. Enjoy!)

Thoughts after Publishing


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Last Friday, I submitted my first book to Amazon Kindle, and it was live on the site by Saturday. Today, I submitted the hardcopy version to CreateSpace, and once they approve it I’ll have a look at the proof as soon as they can mail it out. (And by the way, the process of formatting my book was made immeasurably easier by this guide to using Scrivener software. Well worth the five bucks; I was able to do all the formatting from page margins to fancy capitalized headers in less than two hours.)

In the long process of writing my stories and prepping them for publication, I used the services of several people: a graphic artist who designed the cover, a copy editor, and two story editors. Similarly, for a children’s book that is nearing completion, I’ve been working with two artists to do the illustrations. Working with other artists has been much simpler than I was afraid it would be (aside from the nerve-racking process of choosing who to work with!). Indeed, it has me thinking that the future of creative expression is going to involve not a single writer or artist signing away his soul to a publishing company, but fluid collaborations of several different artists who work together to create their products.

I’m thinking in particular of Homestuck, the webcomic-cum-animated series that is presently taking over certain parts of the internet. The creator of Homestuck was already an experienced computer artist thanks to his previous webcomics, but in this work he kicked it up a notch, by collaborating with other artists. A whole stable of music composers provide an ever-growing custom soundtrack; other graphic artists have contributed sprites or helped with minigames. The eventual product definitely breaks new ground for what a “webcomic” is supposed to look like, in a very good way.

For myself, I’ve been noodling around with a concept for a website, that would let people contribute in a crowdsourced to creating an animated movie. If someone provides the storyboards, others could upload single animation frames, aided by the software which can keep track of it all and compile them into a true movie. Others could provide vocal tracks or foleys. I think it would be a killer concept for the large community of animation and voice-acting enthusiasts; trick is, I can’t write software, so I’d need to bring in some techies. All I have is the concept. Still, it remains exciting, and maybe when I get a few more of my projects done I’ll be able to launch the website I have in mind.

Today we have so many tools for new kinds of creative expression, and the possibility exists for even more tools as soon as someone builds them. And while much of this is driven by new software or companies like Amazon, many of the new possibilities involve collaboration between artists. The picture we have in our minds of the solitary artist laboring in his or her workshop is a badly constrained picture of what is possible. Most of the great artists had staff: Michelangelo, Rodin, to name a few. Even Alexandre Dumas wrote his book The Three Musketeers with an assembly-line process using assistants (which explains why mistakes happened, like D’Artagnan being made a Musketeer twice).

If we work with others who can complement our own strengths, we can bring many new works into the world. The prospect is terribly exciting.

The Best Congress Money Can Buy


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…is live on Amazon! Check it out in all of its glory.

A collection of short stories envisioning what our politics would be like if key features of our society were different, “Best Congress” is sure to entertain, enlighten, and generally make you glad you read it. The first story can be read for free with the “Look Inside” feature, and Amazon Prime members can borrow the whole book for free (and I get paid when people borrow it too, which is a pretty sweet deal all around).

Goodness, there’s a lot to do now! I have to set up my author’s page, start spamming all of my friends, sending ingratiating email to all the bloggers I know, et cetera. It’s all very exciting!

My First Kindle E-Book is Submitted


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Minutes ago, I just pushed the magic button.

Yes, it’s not that impressive. Anyone can publish anything on Kindle, no matter how bad the prose is or the plot is, and most self-published books die in obscurity.

But still.

I am now selling my writing to the entire world. That’s a strange feeling. An awesome feeling. I am so grateful for the modern world we live in and all that it allows us to do.

From here, everything depends on marketing (however you wish to define that). The writing was only the first step. To actually succeed at selling my work, I need to let people know it exists. And there will be plenty of time for that in the next few weeks.

And if you want to know when The Best Congress Money Can Buy is available for purchase, please subscribe to this blog and you’ll find out soon!

But for now, while Amazon is chugging away at its internal review and my listing is not yet propagated to the website, I can sit back and savor it.

This is really happening. I wrote something that will soon go live on Amazon.com.

It’s an incredible thing.

Why You Should Save Your Early Drafts


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I’ve been stuck on one short story in the collection I’m writing for quite a while now. Previously, the story had been a day-in-the-life of a character in a new version of representative democracy that I’m exploring, where instead of having a single Congressman you can transfer your vote to anyone you like, who will be your representative—or you can vote on your own behalf on new legislation, or represent others; but it was boring because there was no conflict. I therefore junked the first idea and tried attacking it from a different angle, that of actively lobbying for a particular bill.

Unfortunately, the second version turned out to be a complete mess. Beating my head against it for weeks trying to fix the structure gave little joy. Finally, frustrated, I decided I’d take another look at the first draft and see if it could be salvaged. Lo and behold, now that I had the benefit of lots of time away from the draft (and having in the meanwhile taken some of the courses offered by Holly Lisle, an excellent writing teacher), very quickly I figured out where the latent conflicts were in the story and how to draw them out into the open.

The lesson here is that you should never, ever, ever throw away old drafts. Duplicate them and then hack them to ribbons if you are editing, but preserve and cherish the originals. They may get you out of a bind someday.

(And yes, this is another way of saying that my collection will be published Real Soon Now™. If you are interested, do subscribe to this blog and you’ll be among the first to know when the book goes live.)

Writing Better Post-Apocalyptic Fiction (Plus an Update)


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It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, so when I saw this post on the FuturePundit blog, I immediately had to post about it. It gives a number of tips on writing more realistic post-apoc fiction (which can therefore lead to more interesting fiction). Check it out, it’s pretty good.

On a side note, I’m presently editing a collection of short stories which I plan to publish shortly. I’ve posted excerpts of early drafts before on this blog, and there’s more to come as we get closer to The Date. I’ve also having a children’s story I wrote a while ago illustrated, which is a lot more fun than working with prose editors! Details will be forthcoming on this blog, naturally, and I’m thankful for your attention, dear readers.

[UPDATE May 17 2013: It’s published! Check it out!]