Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Blessing Of The Vile Metal

Hello, my name is Sarah A. Hoyt and I’m a writer. I suspect I was born a writer and I hope some time in the future they find gene therapy to prevent such disastrous birth defects.

I’m always either writing or thinking about writing. Characters drop into my head, at times, to make my life miserable by simultaneously demanding I write them and not telling me things I need to know.

I am also a vile capitalist – card carrying – and I write for money. Despite all the various schemes that various enlightened people have come with to ensure a society where no one would need to ever work, I think I’m a better writer because I write for money.

I can see a bunch of you quirking your eyebrows. I wish you wouldn’t do it. What would your mother say if your forehead froze like that?

Toni Weisskopf told me once to never tell anyone I would write for free. I hope she forgives me, because I must tell you that I would. In that utopian world (just remember utopia means nowhere) where every tear shall be wiped away and everyone gets everything they need for free from the machines or the humunculus or whatever, I’d probably keep a schedule pretty similar to now. Only if I could get the machines or the magic or whatever to cook, clean, iron and do litter boxes, I could write MORE. Everyone else would be lazing about, and I’d be in front of the computer, having the time of my life. (Yes, even when this is expressed by hitting my head on the desk and groaning. It’s part of the er... process.) I realized how bad I wanted it when I was daydreaming about winning the lottery and I thought "wow. I'd have so much more time to write, then."

However, what I wrote would likely come out very... odd. Look, I’m as apt as the next fellow to get lost in my own head, captive of my own fantasy. And the next fellow in this case is probably John Norman. (Note I wouldn’t get captive of his fantasy because EW.)

These musings are the direct result of my reading Robert A. Heinlein’s biography – the first volume, Learning Curve. I noted that he wrote For Us The Living out of love and conviction. But then market realities intervened, and he started writing to sell and that shaped his stories and them... well, first readable and eventually and in the beginning with Campbell's help (THIS IS JUST MY OPINION AND I’M NOT GOING TO ARGUE IT. NOT THAT I’M TOUCHY OR ANYTHING) brilliant.

Why is this important? Because we’re living in a world where you can become published and even “sell enough to fit your ambition” without ever getting an editor who reminds you of market realities. This combined with the fact that say, short stories no longer pay enough to support anyone and that breaking into novels requires both , might create the conditions in which any future Heinlein would get stuck in the For Us The Living phase. This prospect keeps me awake at night.

Left to my own devices, I would still be writing books so profoundly unpublishable that even I don’t want to re-read them.

Instead, I wrote eight books. The first... six... were in a fantasy world people exclusively by an hermaphrodite humanoid species and run on high magic but really science fiction principles. It took me six books and a sharp rejection from – if I never say this again, everyone remember this – Ginjer Buchanan, for which I will forever be grateful to her, for me to snap into focus and realize that I’d gone so far out on a limb with this world building (Well – she says sulkily – it was supposed to say something about the equality of the sexes) that not only was it unlikely and vaguely repulsive but also – to anyone not as immersed as I was – insane. Not in a good way. The last book in this world had forty eight chapters each one by a completely different person. It had a cast of thousands. It... was unreadable. To make things worse – well better, really imagine otherwise – my treatment of sex in this “series” was at my most Victorian. To me the sex didn’t matter, it was the CONCEPT. But of course, the only thing that MIGHT have sold it was if I’d put sex in.

So I pulled back and wrote Big Bright Shiny Machines. It’s a space opera, set roughly in Athena’s world – it will eventually get rewritten. Then I wrote Mirrorplay, a fantasy set in a pre-Cretan world. This was a trilogy crammed into 100k words. This too will eventually get rewritten. The story is good, the crafter, however, was an idiot.

And then I wrote Ill Met By Moonlight. (Well, technically I wrote Darkship Thieves before it, but it wasn’t published till this year. Also, I heavily edited it, before it WAS published.)

The point is, if I had direct access to “publishing” and had gathered even a couple hundred fans – and there are fans for everything, which is kind of a corolary for rule 34, that if you name a form of exoteric porn, fifteen sites spring into being. In the same way if you wrote stories about elves who roam the Earth looking for one-eyed goats, or murder mysteries in which everyone is killed with a paper clip, a fandom for these would immediately spring into being – I would still be writing the early stuff and probably convinced only the worst of bad luck hadn’t allowed me to make it to the big time.

Instead, I spent ten years in the desert, writing novel after novel and emerged, I think, if not with the commandments, at least better for it.

Writing for money forced a certain discipline on me – beyond “I have to stop fooling with this now, deadline was three months ago.” It forces me to try to figure out when I’ve gone too far out on a limb.

Do you ever feel that sort of market pressure? If not, why not? And how do you think it affects your writing? For better or for worse? And what mechanism do you think – and please tell me one because I want to believe there IS one – will keep young writers striving for more, when they can get a couple hundred fans for any drivel they produce?


Anonymous said...

Market pressure is me constantly rewriting my YA stories because I can't seem to decide whether or not to write the thing in first person or third.

Stupid market peer pressuring. Good thing they didn't try to get me to drink alcohol or something, I'd be a Hemingway without the writing ability.

MataPam said...

Oh yeah. My Fantasies just roll right out. Well, the first drafts.

Then I have to beat them into shape. I tend to write "A year in the life of the magic village" with a ton of small problems, and lots of romance, cute children, dogs and horses. First I generally have to look over the horde of problems and find (create) a root cause. Then I get to figure out whose fault it is and who gets to clean up the mess.

What eventually emerges is better organized, has a purpose, the main characters' parts have been expanded, the cute children, dogs and horses have been rescued...

I like them better after that first major reorganization. Sooner or later one of them will be crafted well enough to sell. I just don't know if I'm doing enough of the right reorganizing, and cutting the right stuff, not the wrong.

I suppose my editing is a response to market pressure, but the stories really are better when they are readable.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Capitalistic humility is the virtue of making what others want to buy, rather than what you want to sell. And it is a virtue, being useful to other people.

As for how to get young writers to write better stuff, I suggest offering them collaborations. I'm pretty sure that Dave Freer was happy to work with Eric Flint. I read that John Ringo was happy to work with David Drake. But to get to that level, they have to write somebody that more than 200 people will want to buy.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah said:
'I realized how bad I wanted it when I was daydreaming about winning the lottery and I thought "wow. I'd have so much more time to write,'

LOL, Sarah, this is MY Fantasy!

'Instead, I wrote eight books. The first... six... were in a fantasy world people exclusively by an hermaphrodite humanoid species and run on high magic but really science fiction principles ...'

Are you sure we weren't twins, switched a birth?

Confession - Also guilty of writing extremely esoteric books that even my crit partners couldn't follow. They said it was like watching a foreign film with subtitles, only to discover you still couldn't understand the motivation!

Anonymous said...

I have so much going on in my head, one of my biggest problems is not knowing which story to single out and go with. I personally appreciate a little market guidance so that I can focus.

I think that's why I like writing for anthologies, they give a direction in which to go.

And while I don't write books yet, I know that I'm going to need some focus before that happens.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, where do you sign up for the one hundred fans for drivel? I'd like some.

Chris Large said...

Surely everyone writes drivel at some point in their career. Why not do it first up?

If you get a couple of fans, well...perhaps this writing caper ain't so bad after all.

Stephen Simmons said...

I have also had exactly that same day-dream about lottery winnings ... are you saying that's not necessarily a healthy sign?

When I "finished" writing volume one of the SF series, I "let the ink dry" for a bit and then re-read it. Then I grabbed the electronic equivalent of a scythe and hacked out several extended political/ ideological harangues, and shortened/shaped/toned down the ones the plot genuinely required. (Not *my* politics, mind you, the Character's ... and we don't agree ... which had made writing those passages really challenging.)

Those sections weren't entirely largess. Some of her biggest problems involve politically-connected antagonists, not unlike Pournelle's Colonel Falkinberg. But I had worked so hard to write that mindset, and gone so far out of my way "establishing that aspect of the Character", that it rendered the work as a whole unsaleable to any but a tiny slice of the population.

Kate Paulk said...

I can say for certain that if I'd been able to post my early stuff on fanfic boards or "self publish" it, I wouldn't have improved - because, hey, "everyone loves it".

Instead, I've worked my anatomy off, mostly without guidance because I had no idea where to get guidance, until I eventually reached the exalted rank of Mad Genius (Junior)

With the more senior Mad Geniuses (Genii?) prodding buttock, I'll probably keep getting better.

Jim McCoy said...


I don't know about two hundred fans, but I've got about thirty and it sucks. It's not that I don't appreciate the fact that they like my writing, it's the fact that they all seem to be convinced that I should be getting paid for it and I'm not. That's one form of motivation that I see working.

There is also the not unrelated advantage of being able to quit my day job and write for a living if I should ever become able to get enough books published. Considering the fact that I would go and television and break my own bones sans anesthesia if they would pay me enough to avoid showing up here this is a not unimportant consideration.

Then there are also others, such as myself, who dream of the day that their work will be not only published, but also turned into a movie/role-playing game/comic book series/toy line etc. That's not going to happen if I only have my thirty fans.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes. Stupid Market -- but to an extent making things understandable to other people does make the stuff better for us.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


To a large extent that's how I used to write. Now it seems to come with plot and all. But now it's insisting on pantsing. I HATE IT. Grumble, grumble. And weirdly it's better...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Unfortunately collaborations aren't always offered. Also, learning from collaborations varies, IMHO. I've seen people who don't learn from it, others who emerge worse. (No, no one you'd know, this is mostly in shorts.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


LOL on the foreign film with no subtitles. The problem is if I take a year to formulate a book THIS is what happens. I get into deep symbolism and hints and... in the end you couldn't find your way around with a compass and a seeing eye dog.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


well, just about any fan site. Also, in most self-publish sites. Seriously. And the problem I have with it is that I've seen young writers NOT improve. It's not a matter of "I have fans, I'll get better" it's more "I'm perfect, I have three fans."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Anony -- is that you, Linda? Sounds like Linda! --

Yeah, I have problems with too many ideas. I want to scream "I'm writing as fast as I CAN." Unfortunately my agent has forbidden me from wearing a tinfoil hat.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Oh, thank heavens. Someone else has characters of a different political orientation. My current b*... her... lovely girl character is the enforcer for a police state. I'm censoring heavilly.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Ditto, and since we play on some of the same fansites, I KNOW that the most awful drivel -- like the one that followed the characters to heaven! -- can get a bunch of fans. And my drivel was never THAT bad (no, I'm not self-delluded, trust me. At least I was grammatical! And character bodyparts didn't do things independently of the character.)
IF I had had readers for my beginning ickness, I'd never have got better.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


at least you know that. So many people seem to just go "I have thirty fans, the rest of the world is stupid."

This doesn't mean you're bad, btw. Some people are startlingly good right off the bat. BUT without the need to keep getting better, you flounder.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, the danger here is that the Character started "arguing with me" about political beliefs I've comfortably held for years -- decades even -- because I had to stretch my mind to get to where she lives. She's not opposite me, like what you're writing -- I have one of those as a major-supporting-role type in the fantasy WIP, though. No, she's just so extreme in her views that it's into the-real-world-can't-work-here territory ... but in her mind, it all makes sense. And she keeps selling it to the people around her ...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Unfortunately mine is the voice character. Think of Revolt in 2100. I need enough to give it flavor before she changes, but...

Stephen Simmons said...

Ooh ... that sounds tough. Long chats with Kate about how to get your mind into those places, maybe?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. Stephen, there is a reason Kate and I are friends. I just have a gift to make the dark seem... bouncy.

Unknown said...

You know, to be contrarian (what me?) I agree that being able to earn money for books is a great motivator -- the mutual deception in publishing is authors not telling publishers that that they'd be willing to do this for nothing, and publishers not telling authors that effectively, they are ;-). I think the most sincere affirmation an author can get is the fact that someone liked their work enough to pay money for it, and besides needing money, I have yet to meet the author who didn't need that re-assurance.

But I don't think it's working. Because in a good capitalist system demand drives supply. So for example if you have 100 cabbages on offer, and you sell 85 cabbages, you are in quite high demand, although in an ideal world you'd be able to sell more cabbages than you have. If you sell 55 of your hundred pumpkins you're not in very high demand. But if every store in the land has 1000 copies of your pumpkin book, and they still sell 55% and five stores in the country have 100 cabbage-books between them - which are just not available in in the other stores, and customers don't ever know they were for sale, and it sells out and is not re-ordered in 4 out 5 stores... Well, in capatislist reward terms pumpkin-books are the winner. Cabbage-book producers will never know if had they matched pumpkin in distribution, numbers available, and re-order whether they'd be actually still be 85% popular compared to Pumpkin-book producers. Hopefully, simply because availability and distribution of e-books is equal in a e-retail environment that will improve. But it still doesn't address the visibility issue, which can still stop capitalism in its tracks in this.

MataPam said...

Oh yes. _Which_ market are you trying to write for? The one full of readers or the one full of publishers?

Unfortunately we must get past #2 before #1 can learn to adore us. Or we leap bravely into the ebook malestrum and find out if we can swim well enough to survive.

What I was thinking about, writing to the market, was as opposed to writing for my own satisfaction. Rereading my own stuff, I don't care if the bad guy is lacking motivation. I don't really need to worry about how the king finances my charactyer's exploration party, and I never notice my run on sentences. Plot? Resolution? Err, problem to have resolved?

My books are much better when well crafted. And I might have to pay attention to whether this book is short and that one huge.

I haven't started writing for the publishers, yet. My only vampire has been contaminated with leech and mosquito genes, and definitly does not sparkle in the sunshine.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: Also, learning from collaborations varies, IMHO. I've seen people who don't learn from it, others who emerge worse. (No, no one you'd know, this is mostly in shorts.)

Ori: A valuable collaboration requires the senior partner to be a good trainer. That is a separate skill from being a good author.

The most collaborative author I know is Eric Flint, former union organizer. I think the two are related. A union organizer isn't just somebody who starts a union. It is somebody who goes to an ununionized workplace, convinces the employees to start a union, and when he leaves the employees continue to run the union. In other words, an instructor.

The issue is how to motivate author wannabes to get better, when they have a monkeysphere sized fan club. Money would work, but it's hard to get enough money out of writing fiction to matter. I think good collaborations might convince them to get to the next level, I don't see what else would.

MataPam said...

I think personal pride must come into it, at some point.

I want my work to be good enough to be widely read, even if the current publishing train wreck makes it even more than usually difficult to get it published.

Any one with the ambition to be published has to strive for improvement, has to write for the readers, and then either also consider the publishers' preferences, or look into e-pub.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I meant what Matapam thought -- not so much writing to the largest market, but just writing with the idea there WILL be a reader. I become completely stupid otherwise.

I agree with you -- natch -- about distribution. The problem is not at the midlist level but at the very raw beginner level. With rare exceptions, I see a lot of people NOT trying to get better.

Unknown said...

Sarah, it's common enough in the midlist too. I've just been politely exchanging views with an author who honestly believes the downturn in book sales is due to the downturn in the economy - despite the fact that cheap entertainment has always been counter-cyclical. If it is not being counter-cyclical - then something is wrong. There is a real possibility it's us (or the midlist author not providing the sort of entertainment the consumer wants) but it's a lot easier to say it's just the economy than to admit you might need to improve. Fortunately I know I need to improve. Unfortunately I don't know if I'll ever be good enough.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: Fortunately I know I need to improve. Unfortunately I don't know if I'll ever be good enough.

Ori: Does "good enough" actually exist, or is it a purely theoretical construct, like "honest politician" or "feline humility"?

Unknown said...

Ori, in this case there are two 'good enoughs'
The first is 'good enough to makea reasonable living and to be able to choose my writing projects.' At the end ofthe day, that's measurable. and might or might not be possible. The second 'good enough for my inner editor.' and the answer to that is 'no.' :-)