Farisa’s Crossing Mail Bag

I’ll answer a few questions that have come to my mailbox.

Can I beta read for you?

Yes. I have two slots open right now. They tend to free up as people find themselves unable to keep the time commitment. This is a big book, likely to reach 650-700 pages, and most of the people I know are in tech and don’t have a lot of free time.

The (soft) deadline for the Beta Reader Program, if you want the signed First Editions, is March 3, 2018. The real deadline is: you’ll get more copies, the more you contribute to my ability to improve the book, and I can’t use suggestions that come after I turn in the book.

I’ve been asked how much the Signed First Editions will be worth. I honestly have no idea.

What genre is Farisa’s Crossing?

Farisa’s Crossing is lead-title epic fantasy, the first book of the Antipodes series, in a world with 19th-century technical capability (“steampunk“) and a female protagonist. It’s genre fiction; however, the prose, contemporary relevance, and characterization meet (in fact, exceed) the standards of the literary genre. It’s not an escapist book, and its value isn’t mere entertainment. It has elves, dragons, magic, and even orcs– but I do interesting things with all of those– and much of what I’m writing is 2017-relevant.

Some writers and critics divide books between “literary” and “genre” books, where neorealistic and relatively unplotted work is called literary. By that classification, I’m writing genre. (Neorealism expects writers to work in the contemporary real world. It’s a noble form; it’s just not what I do.) Quite clearly, it’s a fantasy novel.

Others divide novels between “literary” and “commercial” based on the amount of work put into prose, characterization, and relevance. Some authors optimize for revenue and call a book finished when it’s minimally publishable. Others want to write really good books, books that might outlive them, and put in 5-20 times as much effort as it takes to make a minimally publishable book. That’s rarely economical; you don’t make 5-20 times as much money. On that scale, I’m literary (as are, to their credit, quite a large number of genre authors, at least in fantasy and sci-fi).

So, I’m writing literary genre fiction and see no contradiction.

Is Farisa’s Crossing appropriate for all ages?

It’s what Hollywood would call a four-quadrant book: it will appeal to men and women, over and under 25. That said, it’s definitely not a book for kids; there’s a lot of profanity in it. The world it takes place in is as sexist and racist as this one. There’s a lot of violence, because the story takes place during a long war between an overgrown corporation (the Global Company) and the rest of the world.

I’d rate the book as 14+. It’s no worse than Game of Thrones. But, I’m also quite liberal. Not much bothers me, and I was 14 a long time ago, so take that with a huge grain of salt.

When will it come out?

Well, that’s complicated.

In March 2018, I’ll begin querying. I have wealthy, presumably connected, friends who may be able to get me a timely read– it’s not fair, but the game is the game– from the small pool of agents who can snap together legitimate, lead-title deals.

That doesn’t guarantee anything– there are plenty of reasons why a great book can get a mediocre deal or none at all, and I won’t get into them here. I’ll probably know by late summer how that’s turning out.

If I self-publish, the book should be ready by October 1, 2018. That includes time to hire a professional editor, which I’ll do (though qualified to edit) for the same reason that lawyers hire lawyers and doctors don’t do their own surgery.

On the other hand, if I use traditional (or “trade”) publishing, there’s almost no chance of the book getting out by that date. (Sorry!) Trade publishing takes a long time and there are good reasons for at least some of the delays. Bookstores order months in advance, and the publicity plans that publishers set for their top books can take a full year to implement. If (and, to be frank, probably only if) you get a lead title deal, the delay is acceptable. In fact, in that case, it’s quite worth what you get: reviews in major newspapers, TV and radio interviews, front-table placement in bookstores. A lead title gets an actual launch, as opposed to the “here’s a plank and a paddle” treatment that most books get.

If I get a substantial trade deal, the date won’t be within my control, but will probably be in 2019 or 2020. I don’t love making readers wait, but the difference between 10,000 copies and 1,000,000 is worth it.

There’s another advantage to trade publishing. To be blunt, I’ve made some enemies during my time in Silicon Valley. There’s a low but nonzero risk of frivolous lawsuits and bad-review brigades. (Y Combinator has been sending me fraudulent beta reader interest about once per month; they’re afraid I might write about them.) If it’s only my own muscle in that fight, I’ll still go to it, but I have considerations that other people don’t have, and that also makes top-tier trade deals.

In the above regard, a lead-title trade deal brings more protection than one has if one self-publishes. You have full-time people who will call newspapers and (if necessary) rip people out in order to defend your author brand and reputation. However, the standard-issue trade deal does not come with that… regular trade-publishing deals, in fiction, are largely for people too lazy to self-publish.

To be honest, I’d put my odds of getting a lead-title deal in the 25% range. That’s much higher than the chances I’d give an average first-time author, but it’s still not “good”. That’s still 3-to-1 against.

Why are you likely to self-publish the book, then?

For one thing, I plan on writing the series to completion. This is not “a standalone book with series potential”. Fuck that shit; I’m actually planning to write the series.

In 2017, the standard-issue trade deal makes it difficult to extricate a series if the publisher dumps it, which can happen for any reason or no reason and is not always connected to the quality of the book.

I’ll have to demand certain contractual terms to protect the series– dammit, I am going to write this thing– such as automatic reversion of rights if future books in the series are turned down, or if sales drop below certain targets. Those terms are not usually afforded to four- and five-figure authors.

Why do publishers hold on to books even if sales dwindle? A backlist book selling five e-copies per year is not exactly a major financial asset, but it’s still a call option on the writer’s future performance– it might perk up if that author has future success– and publishers are loathe to give that up.

Am I writing lead-title quality work? Absolutely. However, there are plenty of excellent writers who get terrible deals. Literary quality is only loosely correlated with the strength of the book deal, and sales have more to do with the quality of the deal than the book. (Trade published books are judged on their short-term sales performance, which is largely under the control of the publishers. Book sales will converge to quality– we don’t read Melville and Whitman because Manhattan is shoving them down our throats– over time, but that happens over decades… not in the first 8 weeks.) It’s common for great writers to get tens or hundreds of rejections before anyone sees what they’re really doing. It’s likewise common for great writers to get shitty deals because their publishers or agents assume they’re tired of rejection and will be easy to close.

If things play out for me in the way I desire, it won’t be because I’m better than the writers who got tens of rejections, followed by shitty deals– just luckier.

In fiction, we’re going to see self-publishing triumph. (Trade publishing will still be around, especially in nonfiction where its fact-checking and platform-making services are invaluable; in fiction, it’ll be lead titles and people too lazy to self-publish.) There aren’t enough lead title slots for every novel of merit, and there are plenty of midlist books of high quality that are better served by a freer author (who can, say, give away 100,000 copies without asking permission) than by barely-exerted Manhattan muscle. A deal with a $5,000 advance and no publicity isn’t worth cutting your e-book royalties from 70 percent to 25, losing your ability to offer discounts or give copies away, or worrying about what happens to your series if your editor leaves the firm and your publisher dumps it.

Most importantly, though, the definitions of success in trade publishing and self-publishing are different, and the latter world’s conception of it is more highly correlated with literary quality. In the long run, that’s what’ll kill trade publishing’s prestige in fiction: the fact that one is a short-term game and the other takes a long focus. Word-of-mouth for a book can grow exponentially, but it’s a slow exponential curve, because reading (much less digesting what one has read, in order to critique it) takes time.

Trade publishing judges a book based on its first 8 weeks. That’s not enough time for the slow-exponential influence of readers’ word of mouth to make quality win out over early promotion. The winners in trade publishing are picked in advance– that’s why you want a lead-title deal. Manhattan horse trading and sausage making– a network of “my guy gets reviewed or the next call is from my boss to your boss” conversations– determines a book’s early success. Publishers know in advance which books will be bestsellers. They pick those before the readers get a say. And if they’ve doomed a book with a small print run and shoddy promotion, readers who want to buy it will go to bookstores, see that it’s not there, and forget about it. Then it will die.

What’s a bestseller? In general, a book that sells 10,000 copies in a week will make the list. Of course, a book can sell 10,000 copies in its first week but barely break 30,000 for the year, and then fade into oblivion.

On the other hand, a book that sells 100 copies per day, every day for several years, will never get near the bestseller list. What’s more of a success, though: a book that sells 40,000 copies due to Manhattan muscle, but flames out because it sucks, or a book that sells 100 copies per day for 25 years? Personally, I’d rather write the latter.

In trade publishing, a bad opening week kills your book and possibly your career. Bookstores don’t re-order, your publisher kills the series (but won’t return the rights) and your agent stops returning your calls. There are a number of ways that can happen, and most aren’t the authors fault. If you self-publish, you’re almost certainly going to have a slow opening week… and opening month… and opening year… because slow exponentials are flat for a long time… but if you’re playing for the long term, that might be okay.

Why are you writing this book (/series)?

I have an answer, but it would spoil the ending of the book and possibly the series.

I’m putting in 10+ times as much effort as a minimally publishable book requires so there’s obviously a message. However, even I have a hard time knowing exactly what I’m writing to communicate. I’ll probably be best equipped to answer that… 10 years after I’ve finished the series. So let’s talk in the mid-2040s.

Are you writing low or high fantasy?

Neither. Both. I know what those terms mean, but it’s hard to say.

It’s like “highbrow” and “lowbrow”. I do both. My ending, I’m pretty sure, will change the way some people think about religion, philosophy, life and death. In the same book, I have… a taint fire… which isn’t exactly highbrow.

J. R. R. Tolkien opened up the high fantasy genre, proving it could do more than the sword-and-sorcery (as they’d be called today) potboilers that, until his work, many assumed fantasy novels to be. He neither invented the epic nor fantasy, but he validated that epic fantasy could work in modern writing.

George R. R. Martin’s achievement (although, in later books, his execution seems to have suffered from his stardom) is to establish that low fantasy– with an ensemble cast of mostly loathsome people, a convincing world backed by copious research of this one, frank language, and a magic system that is mostly repulsive– can be epic as well. (This assumes he completes the series.)

Tolkien gives a clear moral topography. Elves good, orcs bad. Rivendell good, Mordor bad. There’s nothing wrong with that. He paints a world that people would actually want to live in.

Martin, for a contrast, drops you into nihilistic relativism and realistic tedium: people are mostly selfish to the point of being forgettable, travel is just as boring and miserable as medieval travel actually was, and it’s hard to know if one’s doing the right thing and most people don’t even fucking care. There’s also nothing wrong with writing that. It resembles the real world quite well.

What am I doing? I’m aiming for the middle. The world is closer to Martin’s than Tolkien’s. But, I enable virtuous characters to exist (and not be boring or hard to believe). Farisa isn’t just another selfish bag of meat, entrails and electricity; I believe that she will make the reader (at least, some readers) care about her fight. She isn’t overbearingly religious (I won’t share her religious leanings, because that’s a plot point) but she’s anti-nihilistic.

The world of Farisa’s Crossing (and, more generally, the Antipodes) is a dark one. The Global Company has won its war of conquest, and Farisa’s born into the aftermath. While the Globbos aren’t putting ethnic minorities into camps yet, just as the global corporate elites aren’t doing so (yet), it’s clear that the world is headed for more ugliness and more danger. Slavery and murder and rape all exist in the world of the Antipodes, because those things actually happen. Dystopia has actually happened in the real world, and will probably happen again. It’s not unrealistic. Yet, I write to give cause for hope. The Global Company might fall! Farisa might be cured of her dreadful illness! I won’t spoil what actually happens, and I haven’t plotted out the series in depth, but I’ve made a world in which it could happen.

I don’t love George R. R. Martin’s nihilistic, power-obsessed, sex-and-food world that, to be honest, has me on #TeamWhiteWalker. He writes it very well. It’s just not what I’m trying to do. I want my story to take place in a world where hope exists.

On the other hand, I have a hard time writing a world where most powerful humans aren’t garbage, because the actual world we see is… one where shit floats. To write a relevant series, I have to deal with that… and then try to write a convincing character who’ll do the right thing, and fight for the good, anyway.

Your main character is too diverse! Brown, female, disabled and (spoiler)!

Yes, this is an objection that someone (not a beta reader) raised, especially since I’m a white male with only a mild disability.

Farisa’s dark-skinned because she comes from the south (41 degrees north latitude, on a hotter and brighter planet). It’s not “too diverse” for her to be brown. Everyone’s brown. I mean, by convention we call light-brown people like me “white” and we call dark-brown people “black”, but… last I checked, everyone’s brown.

She’s female because the story (which has been building in my mind for a decade) became a hundred times better when I switched to a female perspective. Her disability (the Blue Marquessa) comes from her magic. As for the last item, that makes sense too, if you get to the core of who she is. That wasn’t my intention when I created her– in fact, I spent some time writing a character who’d support the opposite– but the more I wrote, the more I realized that it was right.

(Mild spoiler.) I’m put off by the Global Company chapters. Aren’t they Nazis? I find your portrayal too light and your characters too sympathetic.

Yes, the Global Company is fucking evil, and the paths it pursues will remind readers of terrible chapters in this world’s history.

On an individual level, though, the Global Company employees and soldats– known in the book as “Globbos”– aren’t all evil. Many are just stupid. Office pranks and incompetence, rather than steaming cosmic malevolence, run the day for them. There are people there who avoid work at all costs, people who can’t stand the sight of blood, and people who have more enthusiasm for office politics than destroying the world. (Of course, very few real-world villains think they’re destroying it.) It doesn’t make the Global Company less of a threat. It makes it fucking terrifying.

One this-world-relevant message of the Global Company is that, yes, corporate capitalism is a joke and more often damaging through incompetence than malice. The typical corporate worker’s daily life is TPS reports and bake-off drama, not environmental or cultural degradation.

See, there’s an important lesson about global corporatism: in spite of its phlegmatic ineffectiveness, it’s still fucking dangerous. Case in point: 2016. A self-indulgent billionaire runs for the highest public office? A joke! No chance in hell! Oh, wait. In 2017, the worst people in our country marched in Charlottesville, with Tiki torches, shouting “Jews will not replace us”. Tiki torches! Was that a joke? It’s hard to take such people seriously– most of those illiterate lardfuckers aren’t in anything close to fighting shape– but real-world evil has a tendency to look like a complete fucking joke… up until the point where it wins.

If you were a mid-ranking Nazi in 1923, you probably thought of the loudmouth with the mustache as a harmless clown who’d pump the message, but later be pulled aside. If you were a cubicle drone in the mid-1990s (before open-plan offices won out, and cubes became luxurious) you’d find it absurd that corporate surveillance, psychopathic greed, and ill-managed technical prosperity might one day pose a threat to the American middle class, because your image of a corporate executive was closer to Michael Scott than Patrick Bateman. So, I portray Hampus Bell (Chief Patriarch and Seraph of Capital at the Global Company) accordingly, as a bit of a lightweight, because that’s how the people in his milieu see him.

Do you really have Y Combinator people in your book?

Short answer: not really. If nothing else, it’s set in a different time on a different planet.

In drafting, I have used placeholder names inspired by real-world bad actors from my checkered corporate career, but I change them in revision if the characters (even if villainous) become important– not because I’m afraid, but because I don’t want to make insignificant assholes significant.

The standard disclaimer about fictional characters (“purely coincidental”) is bullshit. But, bad writers borrow and good writers steal. Bad writers mimic and hesitate; good writers synthesize and expand. Each character is, by the time I’m done with her, a combination of several real-life people (including, even for the villains, myself). Usually, as I flesh out characters, I improve on the placeholder names.

I enjoy the fact that rich venture capitalists are sweating my book, but they don’t need to. They’ll be fine, really. They’ll still be rich, and I’ll still be… not, at least for a while. I use Pullgrim, Gackhole, and Cuckite for trolls’ names. They aren’t major characters; they’re minor characters in a story-within-a-story that gets less than a paragraph. That’s about as much literary immortality as those assholes are going to get from me.

The Global Company, also, isn’t based on a this-world company. Not Y Combinator, not Google. With 70 percent of the world’s economy under its roof, the Global Company not even capitalistic, not any more than 1984‘s IngSoc is socialistic. Rather, the Global Company is based on our present day’s terrifying trend toward corporate consolidation and belligerent plutocracy.

Something one learns, when studying authoritarianism, is that capitalism and socialism are similar (and approach indistinguishability) when they degenerate. In the US, we are beyond the point of fair capitalism, and small-business formation (as well as large-company and governmental investment in innovation) has been collapsing for years.

How many books do you intend to write? And when?

I expect the Antipodes series to take at least seven books, and not more than twelve. There’s a structure I have in mind for the series and its central cast, but I can’t discuss more without spoiling what happens in the first book. I expect the total to run between 1.5 and 3 million words.

If I continue to work full time, I expect to produce a book about every 2-3 years. That should be the expectation. For one thing, the likelihood of a 6- (much less 7-) figure outcome on a first book is low. For another, even if I were to get never-have-to-work-again rich, I’m not sure that I’d quit technology altogether. Maybe I’d go back to grad school (I’d be able to afford it) and get a PhD in CS, to get a deep knowledge of AI– real AI, not bullshit corporate “data science”– but I doubt I’d just quit the field. Then again, who knows? I’m 34; I’m not far from the field quitting me… even though I continue to get smarter each year.

I expect to have the Antipodes series wrapped up in the mid-2030s, but we’ll see. That assumes that the tech industry (and I have many enemies) doesn’t kill me before then.

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4 thoughts on “Farisa’s Crossing Mail Bag

  1. OK, interested. 🙂 I presume you have my email from the comment form? I’ve appreciated your blog posts low these last 5-7 years, so I see this as repayment of a the good turn. Thank you.

    • I sent you the first 4 chapters– I’m up to 17, and have a previous full draft, but I don’t send material out for beta reads until I’ve done 3 rounds of alpha revision– and I’ll be sending out Chapters 5-8 this weekend.

  2. I’m interested. (Bizarrely, I came here for the Tesla post, and stayed for the writing posts.) I write fiction and non-fiction, I’ve worked as an editor, I read literary | genre fiction.

  3. Hi. Long-time reader. In tech but from an English-y background and blessed with a reasonable abundance of time.

    I’d love to take a beta slot if you’ve still got one~

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