Archive for December, 2008

The Gaian World in the Iskander Series.

December 29, 2008

I guess I must like world building. The original scenario of anachronistic developments in a pre-18th century world occupied my attention some time before the first of the novels took shape. I’ve always been interested in military history as it relates to the development of technology, and my first thoughts were to explore the results of introducing later knowledge and materiel into an earlier society. This would have been best in a computer simulation, but I gave up coding to spend time writing and decided to paint it as a narrative instead.

That explains the military action in “The Wildcat’s Victory”, when Gisel commands a very anachronistic cavalry formation in actions against armies of 1700 vintage. She has a very small force and the enemy a very large one because the fiction requires some balance and suspense, and so somewhere the odds have to be equalized. But the reality of the doctrines of fire versus cold steel do make the critical factor in her successes to be the realistic one of ammunition supply. Her troops can hold their own only as long as their ammunition holds out. She fights with most of the tactics cavalry used in the Civil War, but without the railroads to bring forward the supplies she needs. Which is why Yohan, her lover, appears in the nick of time with a supply train in commandeered oxcarts bringing forward the ammunition the Partnerships steam tugs and barges have brought up the river.

But I have explored more than the effects on military tactics in the series. In “Arrival”, the Iskanders land on Gaia with revolutionary knowledge but absolutely no resources with which to develop them. They have no cash. There is a small workshop and automated factory aboard the starship, and most of the units are portable so they can be brought down when a secure location can be found for them. Which is the reason for the series focus on security. The law in those days was in the hands of a nobility whose first loyalty was to their class. (Well, that’s really not too different than today, but the Iskanders were not in the right class.)

The Iskanders are foreigners to everyone, and foreigners were always treated very shabbily in all societies before the creation of International Laws and their Conventions. For example, prisoners of war did not have the rights to fair treatment and the same rations as the capturing army – even to protection from arbitrary torture or death – until the middle of the 19th century.

When the Iskanders in “Arrival” look to found their society on Gaia around their manufacturing and medical abilities they immediately come up against two big obstacles. There are no sources of venture capital, and no recognized standards of practice. When they find that it could take years to work their way into amassing enough capital to build their steelworks they are obliged to take the same route that Europeans in our own history used – steal it from someone who couldn’t hold onto the gold and silver they had accumulated over the centuries – or steal it from those who had just stolen it from others. They had to go buccaneering in the New World, as did the Spanish, the English, the French and the Dutch.

The currencies on Gaia when the Iskanders arrive are those of coinage. Notes of exchange were purely mercantile conveniences and useable only between enterprises with long histories and close relationships. Providing security for a loan could be very onerous, as Antonio learned in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when his pledge of ‘a pound of flesh’ became due. The advances that Iskander introduces to the local society include the establishment of commercial banking, bourses, and modern marine insurance, but these are not accepted by the Gaians before Iskander has gained its reputation in war and manufacturing .

I had to devise the system of coinage for Gaian society by comparing its currencies to our own and doing some interpolation. The main unit of exchange is the Ducat, generally a silver coin containing 5grams of silver. For larger values, the gold 10 Ducat coin of 5grams of gold is used. Smaller coins of silver include the silver Thaler, worth on fifth of a Ducat and the Lingdish Shilling of a tenth of a Ducat. There are also Groats of copper worth a tenth of a Shilling. You will note I used decimal coinage, rather that the 12 pennies, sixpences, and farthings of the old British coinage I grew up with – entirely for my own convenience whenever I needed to include a monetary transaction in the text.

Again for convenience, I had the basic rate of wages to be one Ducat a day for a middle class gentleman (Gisel gets this as her Lieutenant’s wage), a wealthy man gets 10 Ducats a day and a really rich man would expect 50 or more per day. Going in the other direction a workman would expect to earn a tenth of a Ducat, a Shilling a day, and a poor person would have to get by on a few Groats. Iskander introduces a regular scheme of remuneration into its workshops, ships and armies, which is more generous than the equivalent Gaian scale, but not extravagantly so. It also has a savings and pension scheme for its staff as well as free medical care and education in a welfare package that all its employees share in.

You might be interested to know how Gaian wages compare to ours. When I started the first world building back in the 90s I figured a Ducat should be equivalent to $100 (Canadian or US), but inflation soon made a nonsense of that. Today I reckon a Ducat is $200. This comes out quite well in the range of our own financial scale. When Nixon took the $ US off the gold standard in 1973 and ounce of Gold was worth $35. Today Gold drifts around the $800 to $1000 mark (depending on the degree of hysteria in the markets) and if you compare that in terms of 1973 dollars, gold is worth from $10,000 to $17,000 an ounce, depending on whose figures you want to use. With Gaian gold worth about 57 Ducats to the ounce my Gaian economic system operates on gold worth $11,400 an ounce – well within the ballpark.

What’s in a Series?

December 19, 2008

Many people characterize the undertaking to write a novel an expression of extreme arrogance on the part of the author. How can someone who has never learned the intricacies of fiction have the hubris to flout common decency to the degree that they cast their words upon the world in reams of spoiled paper? Do they presume to stand in the company of Austen, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Steinbeck? I guess so.

How much more arrogant must the author of a series be?

More reams to add to those already spoiled? Or is there a accumulation of worth uncovered by sheer volume? I would suggest the completion of several works of sufficient similarity in theme, scenario, and characterization shows, at least, that the writer has the capacity to conceptualize his or her theme beyond a tentative expression. When one novel gives rise to another, the concept has seized one well-exercised imagination, at least.

Which leads to another thought. Should one consider a series to be only the working out of a complex situation over several volumes, or do we allow those mongrels of collective works based on one originator’s idea to qualify? Volume DCCCLXXXVIII of the Star Trek saga anyone? One has to wonder at the capacity for imagination and contemplation of the fan who has read them all.

I have to admit that I began the Iskander series with the fond expectation that readers would grasp the complexities of the situation the Earthlings found themselves in with the same comprehension I did. It was only much later that it dawned on me that I hadn’t described those circumstances with enough clarity to give poor readers that chance. Reason one for extending the series back to the beginning with “Arrival”. I’ve also attempted to expand upon one or more of those complexities in each novel of the series.

Fact is, the more I consider the multitude of human reactions as well as political and mercantile ramifications from dumping a group of modern people into a 17th century world it seems the poor author, me, needs an extended course in sociology, psychology, economics, political science, military history, engineering . . . well, you get the idea. It’s a good thing I’ve had a low level fascination for most of these subject for years – low level because I never undertook to prove competence in those fields with a graduate degree. Heck – then I wouldn’t have time to write.

So the series is an exposition of the questions raised by the scenario, not a collection of answers. The solutions devised by the people in the novels’ world are only as competent as the author’s vision. Which is the same undertaking that thousands of other writers of novels have unrolled upon the reading public since 1741. We want you readers to pick up from the situations we create to do your own thinking. Perhaps we are just as valuable – if at all – when we don’t know our a**es from a hole in the ground.

Thousands worship at the altar of Ayn Rand’s novels, which the unfolding of real events has proven to be self-important humbug. But without those flawed paeans of praise for greed and avarice, would we normal people not be limited in the catalog of worldly follies we can examine? We authors have to hope that all our creations contribute something, however small, however mistaken, to the catalog of human society’s writings. Because, in the last analysis, society is what it pictures itself to be, and we humans are no more than the players in the stories we have created for ourselves.

The Writer Behind Arrival.

December 14, 2008

I promised to write more about the Arrival story line, but I think the relationship between author and story may be more relevent to others who read this blog.

Firstly, although it is the third novel in the series to be published it takes place at the beginning of the adventures. I can explain how it became left behind in the process of writing but why did I feel it necessary to go back in story time to write it? If you write or know anything about writing fiction you cannot fail to have heard the admonition ‘show, don’t tell’.

It dawned on me that this aphorism applies to the basic scenario of fiction as well. In the other novels I explain that unusual circumstances have marooned a group of modern people in an analog of our 17th century Earth. I have described the difficulties and dangers arising from the cultural differences – but these are all ‘tells’. Arrival goes through this period in their troubles as a ‘show’. Even my editor, who has now read all three very attentively, commented after editing Arrival, “I understand the difficulties you describe after reading the scene in chapter 11″.

This suggests to me that every new novel will have the same problem if it’s plot requires grounding in previous events. Perhaps a straightforward or familiar set of circumstances might get by, but if you are attempting to delve into anything outside of conventional knowledge – better not tell, but show.

So, how did Arrival get left behind? To be brief, the whole scenario changed after I began writing the original novels. Two critiquers ganged up on me and said the scenario I had didn’t fly. I won’t even attempt to explain the original scenario, except to say I learned a great deal about cosmology and modern physics from trying to make the time shift between the 17th century and modern times work in a computer simulation. All I’ll say here is that if you try to pull tricks with Einstein’s equations you will gain a deeper understanding why he said that space and time are inextricably entwined. As a result I changed the background to an inexplicable displacement into an alternate universe and left it at that. In the opening chapter of Arrival the people aboard Iskander are astounded to arrive at the alternate Earth, and they never do figure out how it  happened.

Two novels that I had written in the old scenario no longer worked (they weren’t very good either) so I began rewriting in the new scenario at “Deadly Enterprise”, that was then at an early enough stage to change. Neither of the originals was Arrival, but along with my revising of notes on characters and scenario I wrote its trial chapter – what I call an idea fixer – that subsequently became incorporated into the novel. The history that Gisel had been a medal-winning gymnast in her pre-teens and switched to competition foils at 13 were concocted to explain the position she held aboard Iskander, and the few years spent in the care of her grandmother in Greece followed as soon as I decided to kill the Roman Empire on Gaia and make Greek the language of scholarship.

Those two scrapped novels leave a hole in Gisel’s story that needs to be filled one day. The first included her reckless love affair with Lord Ricart and the second showed her almost dying aboard the privateer Zigany, both mentioned in “Deadly Enterprise”. While some chunks of the second, “In Harm’s Way”, can fit into a replacement novel, the first plot is beyond salvaging and so one day I must write an entirely new “Iskander’s Wildcat”. If Arrival attracts enough interest from readers who want another YA story, I have an ‘idea fixing’ chapter written that begins its sequel – to be titled “Masquerade”. This adventure takes place when Gisel is in her year of training that completes her father’s engineering course, followed by Hather’s medical practicum that sees Gisel qualify as an EMT. When her training with Hannan aboard the Sirius, now their covert operations launch, coincides with a hasty Iskander Security mission Gisel gets to put everything to use.

While thinking about visiting the local schools to try Arrival out on its intended audience it struck me why I began writing the adventures of Gisel Matah. I really have no experience of being a young woman. As a young fellow of that age I found it impossible to develop any relationship with girls. I just didn’t know how to talk – or more importantly – how to listen to them. Looking back it seems to be a function of growing up as an only child in the care of my widowed mother. When I reached puberty and started developing my own goals and methods to reach them, our beautiful relationship started to break down. My mother was a strong character and so becoming my own person meant regular battles with her. Having to fight off the domination of one female at home, I wasn’t about to develop a friendship with any of the females at school. They were enigmas, outside my world, except the girl I always competed with for top marks in history exams – who I always regarded as a deadly rival. It has taken me many years to learn to appreciate listening to the views and knowledge of my female peers – and perhaps much patience and understanding from my wife who has been here while the development has taken place.

When is a Publication Date?

December 7, 2008

Weeks can pass before an e-book release is followed by the availability of the same book in print as a POD paperback. So which should we call release date? How do other authors calculate the date when they should hold a launch?

This question hit home when I found I should check my blogs more often. I had posted a blog entry here to announce that my latest Iskander series novel, “Arrival” had been released in early October, but nothing about it since. Even earlier I had posted an announcement that Arrival was soon to be released, but that was another “no news happened” headline. At least with the October announcement I posted the back cover blurb.

The problem is that my novels really have two release dates, an online one and a local one. The e-book is the first release and Arrival’s happened on October 6th. The release, or rather availability, of the POD paperback happens a week or so later when Amazon.com have set up their site update. Then, later still, Amazon.ca tells me that they have ‘arrived’ and shipped the couple I’d ordered early. Eventually – somewhat later still – I can estimate when I will have my local batch of PODs from LightningSource to hand and can safely fix a launch date.

Usually I don’t buy copies at retail, but the way the Canadian dollar has nosedived since release date (or is that publication date?) I decided to get a couple to have on hand and wait until the exchange rate recovered before ordering a batch through my publisher for readings, signings and to send away for contests and reviews. Wouldn’t you know the deadline for sending out the contest copies loomed ever closer and I blinked. I bought a batch, a small batch, at one of the worst rates of exchange I could find. No profit on these copies.

In October, as I saw the exchange rate tank, I decided to do most of my promotion online. You can be excused for not seeing it, I never did get around to more than posting a cover image on about a dozen sites. No big bash online. Maybe I should wait to find how Arrival does in the contest before heating up the electrons. I had hoped to put on a bit of a bash at a local art gallery for my POD launch, but not having the copies stymied that. November was the last possible month at the gallery and I don’t think it opens in the new year until February.

The thing is – why should I get in a panic about launch date? The novel isn’t put out by one of those big houses that monitor sales every split second and decide whether the author is worth keeping by the instantaneous earnings rate. It isn’t in the stores of impatient book chains who will remainder it and ship it back at publisher expense if copies don’t fly off the shelves. I’ve only ever spoken to the managers of one brick and mortar store, and they stock a copy or two and act like human beings about sales, not parking meters.

The wisest people in the publishing business say that a readership takes time to build, and the more novels a writer has available, the bigger the following. It’s quite obvious that this is next to impossible for a new author relying on distribution by the bigger houses; publishers with absolutely no patience who only back writers with huge fan bases. If the first novel doesn’t reach a level to cover advance and distribution the next will get a very jaundiced reception. A new writer is betting against very long odds signing with them.

The independents who only publish paper copies are not immune to the same problems – they have to pay printing, warehousing, shipping, and returns on the books they produce and will soon be in the red if their authors don’t dash about like blue-assed flies selling them. The clock begins to tick at publication date, and there is no time for slacking off if author hopes to get another contract.

The publishers who work in electronic and print-on-demand media can afford to be easier markets for a new author to gain momentum in. There is no deadline for taking the e-book off line and the contracts run for years (3 to 5 is common), and as for the POD copies, they are never printed unless a customer has ordered them, and so no trees, fuel, or money wastes while the books are shuffled around the country. Most e-publishers have no truck with returns. If the bookseller doesn’t ensure the order was serious, it’s up to them to find another customer.

The only person storing copies of my books is me and they’re few enough they don’t get in the way. If I was to go out and hustle them at the local social events next summer I could sell them all. I’ll see what the weather and the gas price is like and decide whether I’d rather sit at home writing than go out and sell. (That’s a no-brainer). As I figured in October – it is a much less wasteful and stressful business to build up a readership online. For the POD copies, I only have to point the readers to Amazon and they have less hassle than they would driving to a store through city traffic. And the e-book? It costs nothing to instantaneously transmit a file over the internet, and the price of an e-book (unless it comes from a NY publisher) is low enough that the loss on exchange is a dime or two.

I’ll start the online launch of Arrival here on the blog – next installment later in the week. And the POD book launch locally? When I damned well feel like it.

WF 2008 – getting into the program.

December 2, 2008

In an online discussion with my publisher in Texas (who had tried to make time to attend the convention but had to drop the idea) she told me that to get the most value from attendance one had to become part of the program, so people who ‘count’ have a chance to see you as an active talent. Before this I had intended to attend and lurk in the background to learn, but I thought I’d better take her advice.

I guess the first route one should follow to become part of the program is to watch the pre-convention information from the organizers, and be ready when they begin soliciting participation from those who have signed on. I’m told this could be of many forms, from requests for volunteer help, to reading, and to sitting on a panel. This convention featured, usually, four simultaneous streams in four different function rooms, and two of them were largely for author readings. I put my name in when the call came a few weeks before the event and they put me down to do a reading – in the first hour of the program.

This had both advantages and disadvantages. Only about half of the attendees had arrived by that time. (I saw some trickling in on day 3) so I wouldn’t be playing to a full house. On the other hand, the author slated to read for the second half hour didn’t show up, so I was able to keep my small audience (less than a dozen) for the whole hour by interspersing readings from two novels with some discussions I invited them to join. As a consequence we talked about genres, publishing, writing, conventions – whatever – not deeply, but enough to provide a warmup for those present (as well as me).

The next route I learned from people I met during the convention. I was urged to join SFCanada, a speculative fiction group of published authors – and subsequently did so. I learned from a lady (a fellow author with the Texas company) who I had looked to meet at the convention, that these largely B-team author groups (those of us who do not command 5 figure advances) provide the foot soldiers for organizing and sitting on panels in the program to save wear and tear on the A-team authors (who do). Being visible at conventions and belonging to groups like SFCanada are a route to greater networking and greater exposure as a writer.

Which leads to another way to be noticed. You will be attending many panel discussions anyway, so look to come up with a provocative question when the panel is opened to questions from the floor, and then look to buttonhole the panelist who fielded it. This takes a bit of ‘push’ because when the panel ends they are intent on getting to the next part of the program. This is where one has to use one’s own inimitable charm and occupy their attention and responses . . . at least until they reach the door.

Those who have already started on the ‘being noticed at conventions’ route have a head start for all the subsequent ones they attend. They are recognized by friends they’ve met before and might already be on first name basis with the authors you hoped to meet. Another method is to be at the convention for a third party organization. I met a young lady librarian who seemed to be attending all the author readings I did (including mine) on behalf of an online SF review  magazine. I met a young man who was there on a very similar task as I was, drumming up advance notice for a novel not yet released – a macabre comic novel called “Breathers” and written from the POV of a zombie. He was on his third convention for the year and had more to go. And then was another young lady who confided that she hadn’t yet finished the first draft of her first fantasy novel, but as a academic, turned out to know a great many people there – well enough to be invited to participate in two more conventions in 2009.

So, I suppose the first requirement for profiting from convention attendance is a credential – either a completed work or a published work – from any of the 70,000 small presses, if NY does not know you – or an academic profession that gains you notice, a mission from an interested organization, of a job in the industry. Then I’d suggest the next is to enjoy the program; talk to everyone who will stop to chat a moment; sit in on all the readings of other writers you have met online; make the acquaintance of a name or two; and don’t forget to look up people in the writing world you may have met many years before and hardly recognize.

The writing business is no different that any other – socializing and making sure people know your face can make a difference later when something with your name on comes across their desk.

Sorry I’m so slow.

December 1, 2008

I promise to get at the last post about WF 2008 tomorrow.  I have something I learned about getting in a convention program — not from an expert, but one day you may be a first-timer, too.

I’m late because too many things piled up lately, and having an arm overstressed in three places hasn’t helped things along. Read the posts below if you haven’t been here recently.  I’m feeling gratified that my blog stats show this series of entries has been interesting for a number of you.

Chris H.